Learning from the State Department’s Past
It is always instructive to study history when analyzing current events in the Middle East. For U.S. policy, it is particularly useful to look at documents released by the State Department, the most recent of which concern the years 1967-1968. Besides getting a behind-the-scenes look at American diplomacy, it is possible to find fascinating insights into the thinking of the major players in the region.
One thing that is crystal clear in reading the State Department records is how antagonistic most officials were toward Israel. While this may come as no great surprise, the documents bolster the conventional wisdom. For example, a key member of the National Security Council staff saw President Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection as a great opportunity to “bring pressure on Israel and begin re-balancing our position toward the Arabs. No successor will have such freedom to create public doubt that Israel can count on us in a Soviet-backed effort to get Arab territory back, curtail our support in the UN, tamper with tax exemptions for Israel bonds, or whatever else might occur to us.”
The Arabs have always been good at playing on State Department fears that they might turn off the oil spigot or join in an anti-American alliance. Thus, for example, Jordan’s King Hussein threatened in February 1968 to purchase arms from the Soviet Union if the United States didn’t “meet his legitimate defensive arms requirements.”
A number of points reverberate today. For example, in 1968, Israel was the target of numerous terrorist attacks, especially from Jordan, and launched several retaliatory strikes. This was typical of the State Department’s response: “We are aware of problems that terrorism and shelling of civilian centers cause for GOI [Government of Israel]. To avoid jeopardizing peacemaking efforts, however, we are urging parties to exercise utmost restraint. Latest Israeli air operation strikes us as dangerous over reaction.”
Interestingly, that same document from December 5, 1968, also contained a reference to observers that suggests an Israeli willingness to accept them. Then Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin explained that Israel “could not tolerate shelling of civilian settlements” and that “unless cease fire was observed by Jordanians, Iraqis and Fedayeen there would be further incidents.” He is quoted as adding that “while Israel had never requested UN observers on cease fire line with Jordan, it was GOJ [Government of Jordan] not Israel which had refused to accept them.” When asked if Israel would accept observers, Rabin said Israel didn’t believe “UN observers could bring tranquility” but had accepted them on the Syrian and Egyptian cease fire lines.
Contrary to the myth that Israel never wanted to relinquish the West Bank, there is a December 11, 1968, telegram in which Israel laid out the following proposal: “no Arab army should be west of Jordan River. Jordan would get back 90 percent of population and 85 percent of territory on West Bank. Only 17,000 Arabs would be left in the territory which Israel required. Re Jerusalem, it must remain united and capital of Israel. Good progress had been made with Vatican re Christian Holy Places and Israel would be glad to give sovereignty (sic) over Christian Holy Places to appropriate bodies. Any agreed sovereign (sic) for Moslem Holy Places would be agreeable to Israel but Jordan was nearest and second best choice.”
That document also mentions discussions Israel had with Palestinians about a possible West Bank state. Abba Eban said Israel wasn’t optimistic and didn’t like the idea of a buffer state. He also said “most Palestinians wish to be with whoever is in charge of East Bank.”
On the subject of the Arab states’ interest in peace, there is an April 8, 1968, telegram from the Embassy in Jordan relating that Egyptian President Nasser said the peace process led by UN representative Gunnar Jarring wouldn’t succeed and that “only military solution was feasible and that UAR military was therefore preparing for that solution.” Nasser said six other Arab states (Algeria, Syria, Sudan, Kuwait, South Yemen and Saudi Arabia) also opposed a political settlement. In an aside, King Hussein told the U.S. ambassador, “Your friend [Saudi King] Faisal is more opposed than anyone to peaceful settlement.”
Perhaps the most important decision made in 1968 was one the State Department opposed, and consistently tried to make conditional on a variety of Israeli actions, and that was the sale of Phantom jets. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Warnke explained in a November 4 document the significance of President Johnson’s decision to make the sale: “We will henceforth become the principal arms supplier to Israel, involving us even more intimately with Israel's security situation and involving more directly the security of the United States.” In fact, this was the largest arms sale to Israel, the first time the U.S. sold Israel a weapon that was not counterbalanced by a sale to the Arabs, and marked the beginning of the policy of insuring that Israel maintains a qualitative edge over its neighbors.
What is perhaps most striking about reading these 33-34 year-old documents is how little has changed. The quality of the U.S.-Israel relationship has certainly improved, but that is largely despite the State Department, rather than because of it. If there are any mysteries about the reasons for the statements and policies emanating from Foggy Bottom, they can be quickly cleared up by perusing Volume XX of the Foreign Relations of the United States.