A World Apart? : The White House and the Middle East | The Nation


A World Apart? : The White House and the Middle East

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AP IMAGESIsraeli troops departing a Sinai outpost, March 1957

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Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai lives in Jerusalem and New Hampshire. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an...

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A writer can't tackle a subject as immense as the United States and the Middle East without a kind of working conundrum. Patrick Tyler, a former New York Times and Washington Post correspondent, does not tell us what prompted him to write A World of Trouble, other than the declassification of some documents; but his conundrum is fairly easy to infer from the book's first chapter, which chronicles President Eisenhower's strong response to Israel during the aftermath of the 1956 Sinai War. Roughly, it is this:

The United States had reasons for becoming Israel's patron after the Six-Day War in 1967, but the continuing conflict has seriously damaged America's relations in the Middle East and across the Muslim world. And there is plenty of evidence--ever since Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser accepted UN Resolution 242 in July 1970--that at least Egypt and Jordan were prepared for a peace deal if the United States could have forced Israel back into its pre-1967 boundaries (allaying Israeli security fears with, say, a defense pact). During all this time, Israel has been almost entirely dependent on the United States for diplomatic cover, guns and money. During most of this time, US policy has been that Israel's colonization of the West Bank is "an obstacle to peace." Yet successive presidents allowed Israel a free hand while successive prime ministers expanded settlements to more than half a million people, a great many of them neo-Zionist fanatics--people who are inarguably an (arguably the) obstacle to peace. Why did these American presidents not dictate peace terms to Israel--by 1974 a client state--the way Eisenhower did in 1957? Was this incapacity or reluctance really, as some have famously charged, the work of the Israel lobby?

The good news you derive from Tyler's book--if good is the word for it--is that you cannot explain US foreign policy as the product of any permanent force, or quirk, of domestic politics. There are complex stories behind presidential responses. Yes, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been influential; but you also need to consider factors like presidential ideology, real international rivals, varying levels of political vulnerability, narcissism and sheer stupidity. Tyler's book exposes so many presidents, in so many diplomatic fixes, that we derive something like a comparative taxonomy just from reading through it. And when you project Barack Obama into the obvious categories--worldly versus naive, vulnerable versus popular, and so forth--it seems clear that no president since Eisenhower is better positioned to bring Israel into line with an American version of, and interest in, regional peace. Obama has now delivered his Cairo speech. Will he--can he--follow through?

By the end of 1956, Tyler reminds us, Israel occupied most of the Sinai Peninsula, after attacking Nasser's forces in late October. The Israeli government was made up of virtually the same people who would be in power during the Six-Day War; their justifications for making the occupation of the Sinai permanent were ones that would become familiar after 1967: control of Palestinian terrorism, strategic depth through territorial expansion, "deterrence." The black joke at the time was that Hitler had swum to Egypt and become nasser ("wet" in Yiddish). Actually, though the Egyptian president spoke of rallying the "Arab nation" against colonialism, he shifted away from American patronage only after Eisenhower's powerful secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, failed to deliver on a promise to build a high dam at Aswan. Nasser then acquired an enormous quantity of tanks and MIGs from the Soviets. He also nationalized the Suez Canal.

Israeli Prime Minster David Ben-Gurion, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and France's Guy Mollet had plotted the whole "crisis" in advance. Israel would say that its invasion was to pre-empt insurgents operating from the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip, where about 1 million Palestinian refugees languished in camps. But this would serve as a pretext for England and France to intervene and reoccupy the canal zone. Ben-Gurion had brushed aside his foreign minister Moshe Sharett's secret contacts with Nasser and wanted urgently to pre-empt Egypt's assimilation of Soviet arms. He also wanted to open the port of Eilat, blockaded by Egypt at Sharm el-Sheikh since the 1949 cease-fire, and turn his newly minted Israel Defense Forces into a shaper of both diplomatic facts and the immigrant Hebrew nation. He was already developing a nuclear bomb.

And Ben-Gurion was not without a grand design that might well have appealed to cold warriors like Dulles. He had presented to his co-conspirators a plan that entailed Israel's annexing not only a large swath of the Sinai but also the West Bank of the young King Hussein's Kingdom of Jordan and southern Lebanon up to the Litani--while France installed a sympathetic regime in Damascus. Meanwhile, Britain's client, the Hashemite regime in Baghdad, would annex what was left of cousin Hussein's East Bank. Eden and Mollet, to their credit, refused to play Sykes and Picot to Ben-Gurion's Jabotinsky. But British and American intelligence agents (the head of the CIA was Dulles's brother Allen) were indeed plotting a coup in Syria. The Dulles brothers had, after all, already engineered the toppling of Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953, reinstalling the shah.

Nevertheless, Eisenhower and his secretary of state were furious--and not only because the plot was hatched without telling them. For America had other interests, too--most obviously, in Persian Gulf oil fields and desert kingdoms. Eisenhower and Dulles were founders of the United Nations and wished to establish a stable order in the Middle East where international corporations could operate and that was not a necessary theater of cold war confrontation, as Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia had become. Besides, how could Dulles discredit the Soviet Union for its suppression of the Hungarian revolution while two of NATO's leading members crushed Nasser and re-entered the Canal Zone? How could America sponsor the Saudi regime when the region, inflamed by Israel's triumphs and imperial associations, was turned toward Nasserism and against the West?

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