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

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

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Stymied in the UN Security Council, where England and France had a veto, Dulles pressed the General Assembly to call on them to withdraw their forces. A resolution was approved, and they were out within a week. What was left to contend with was Israel's occupation of the Sinai. Ben-Gurion talked tough. Dulles and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson answered with the creation of a UN international peacekeeping force, and Pearson warned, "You run the risk of losing all your friends." Tiny Israel was almost entirely reliant on the good graces of Western powers that were, in turn, beholden to the United States. Israel, it is true, enjoyed Congressional support, especially from the Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson, who was surrounded, like most Democratic leaders, by party bosses and influential Jewish friends--Abe Fortas, Arthur Krim--whose liberalism seemed of a piece with the saga of Zionism. Yet Dulles would not be moved. Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai was an American interest.

About the Author

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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In what Tyler calls the administration's "finest hour," Eisenhower went on television in February 1957 and acknowledged that Israel should have free shipping to Eilat. He spoke of the UN charter and of UN forces ensuring free navigation. But of Israel seeking "something more," Eisenhower added: "Should a nation which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal?" Dulles told Israelis that they "were on the verge of a catastrophe." (Tyler's narration, here and in the rest of the book, is convincing if slightly overdramatized: "Dulles could see that he was up against a lioness.... [As he] walked [Foreign Minister Golda] Meir to the door, he could not let her have the last word.")

That was that, and Ben-Gurion knew it. By the end of March 1957, Ben-Gurion had withdrawn Israeli forces from the Sinai, though with gains Israelis did not think trivial at the time. The port of Eilat was opened to Israeli shipping, which meant oil from the shah's Iran. It also meant flourishing relations between decolonized sub-Saharan African countries like Nkrumah's Ghana and "socialist" Israel, which dispatched military and agricultural advisers (often the former in the guise of the latter).

On the whole, this turned out to be Israel's golden age of state building, Hebrew cultural innovation and immigrant absorption. In a bittersweet twist of fate, a good many of the immigrants from North Africa were stampeded to Israel by the reaction of Arab governments to the 1956 invasion. The UN placed buffering troops in the Sinai, "the umbrella," as Abba Eban complained to UN Secretary General U Thant in the aftermath of the 1967 war, that would be taken away "as soon as it begins to rain"; it would indeed take another war for Israel to prove it could not be destroyed. Still, occupation of the Sinai would hardly have made new wars less likely. As Israelis learned bitterly in 1973, occupation made war inevitable.

Tyler's account of Eisenhower and Ben-Gurion is clearly meant to trigger a thought: why has no subsequent president approached matters quite this way? Should we assume that Israel will always be a third rail--that the Israel lobby has made American pressure incredible? Tyler takes for granted that such questions fuel growing skepticism, in and out of Israel and the Palestinian territories, about the prospects for any new peace negotiations. (Disclosure: Tyler interviewed me in 2005 when he was getting started on his book.) Whether or not the Palestinian Authority creates a unity government--or Israel reaches a deal with Syria over the Golan--skeptics assume that Israel's government will continue to come up shy of an acceptable offer to the Palestinians, especially regarding the settlements and Jerusalem. The only hope, though Tyler is tactful about spelling it out, is for a US president willing to make Israeli elites fear diplomatic isolation more than they fear the collapse of national solidarity. Diplomacy, to use the phrase of CBS's veteran correspondent Bob Simon, means putting Israelis "into a panic."

Tyler does not get into this, but we must be clear about the dynamic here, since new generations of correspondents have a way of writing about Israeli politics without his, or Simon's, sense of history. The problem is not some spontaneous drift "to the right" in Israel owing to, say, Hamas's missiles or Ahmadinejad's threats. Israel, after all, has been integrating these territories for forty years; Hamas did not even exist during the first twenty. Of course Israelis distrust Arab intentions, and vice versa. But although Tyler doesn't get into this, polls have shown for many years that a slight majority of Israelis would want to do a deal anyway--actually, a large majority of globalist professional and entrepreneurial elites in greater Tel-Aviv. Assume peace with Palestine, and the lives of Israelis on the coastal plain will change, if at all, for the better. The problem is that the Israeli population of greater Tel-Aviv is a decreasing majority relative to Jewish settlers and Orthodox residents of Jerusalem--call them "Judeans"--and the less well-educated Mizrahi and ultranationalist Russian immigrants who tend to support them. The Israeli right does not oppose a deal the way residents of New Hampshire oppose an income tax. For them, Greater Israel and a policy of deterrence is a way of life, inextricably bound up with sustaining a "Jewish" state--not only against Palestine but in spite of Israel's Arab minority, a fifth of its citizens.

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