Ronald and Allis Radosh: What Harry could teach O about Israel





[Ronald and Allis Radosh are the authors of "A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel."]

PRESIDENT Obama was disappointed that his June 3 meeting with Saudi King Abdullah brought no Saudi concessions to move the peace process forward.

From day one, the president has pressured the Israelis to halt all settlement activity. Having been tough on them, he believed that he could ask something in return from the Arabs.

Instead, sources report, the king subjected him to a lecture on Israeli perfidies. Then, a week ago, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, at a joint press conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said that Saudi Arabia wouldn't accept steps suggested by the US until Arab demands are met first.

Obama isn't the first president to be rebuffed by a Saudi king. On Feb. 14, 1945, as World War II was closing, President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia's founding father.

When FDR raised the issue of allowing Jewish refugees into Palestine, Ibn Saud informed him that "Arabs would rather die . . . than yield their land to the Jews." Afterward, he told American Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen Wise that he had never "so completely failed to make an impact upon a man's mind as in this case."

A month later, FDR suddenly died of a brain hemorrhage, passing the issue of Palestine, the Arabs and the Jews along to the new president, Harry S. Truman.

Truman was unaware of the promises Roosevelt had made behind the scenes to both groups during the war: reassuring the Arabs that nothing would be done in Palestine without consulting them, and telling the Jews that if they'd just wait until the war's end, Palestine would be open to them. But now, World War II was ending, and the British handed the Palestine issue over to the new United Nations.

Unlike FDR, Truman wasn't the sort of man who could make contradictory promises. He eventually threw his support behind the UN partition plan to create a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine. When he made a public statement supporting partition, he received an irate letter from Ibn Saud.

Truman wrote back, informing him that it had always been US policy to support a Jewish National Home in Palestine, and therefore it was only natural that America would favor the entry of Jewish displaced persons.

He based his views on the Jewish people's historical ties to Palestine and to the promise made to them by the British Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the Palestine Mandate given to the British by the League of Nations after World War I.

On May 14, 1948, Truman announced that America recognized the new country of Israel, minutes after it was declared, making it the first nation to do so. Truman hoped that Israel would serve as a model advancing Middle East democracy and development, but he knew that it wouldn't happen until the Arabs accepted the will of the international community and recognized Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state side by side with an Arab Palestinian state.

At the time, Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia told Under Secretary of State Dean Rusk that the Arab states "could not ever accept a Jewish state." As Truman himself acknowledged in 1947, "the Arabs [are] so difficult to talk with that it is almost impossible to get anything done."

Since 1948, the Palestinians have repeatedly been offered their own state side by side with Israel. Each time they've rejected it and even ratcheted up their violence against Israel. The settlement issue has never been the major stumbling block.

Obama might have thought that pressing the Israelis on settlements would lead to a breakthrough, especially now that the Arab states are nervous over Iran's nuclear ambitions, but perhaps he needs to be better informed about the conflict's history.

By initiating the peace process with demands that Israel freeze settlements, he has given the impression that if only it would comply, there'd be peace. And he has given the Palestinians and Arab leaders a rationale for again refusing to accept their neighbor's legitmacy. Not surprising, a recent survey shows only 6 percent of Israelis consider Obama a friend.

Unlike Obama, Truman wouldn't have begun his quest for peace by demanding concessions from the side that's always been willing to compromise. Hopefully, Obama is rethinking this strategy, by placing concurrent responsibility for concessions on the Arab side.


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list