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November 17, 2013 5:47 pm

Ben-Gurion’s Legacy: Resisting U.S. Pressure

avatar by Yoram Ettinger

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Statue of David Ben-Gurion in Rishon LeZion, Israel. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Upon the 40th anniversary of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s death, Israeli and American policy-makers should study the 1948 legacy of Israel’s Founding Father: Defiance of disproportionate U.S. pressure forged Israel into a national security producer rather than a national security consumer, catapulted the Jewish state into the most productive U.S. strategic ally, enhanced the long-term U.S.-Israel mutually beneficial ties (following short-term tension), and advanced the national security of both the U.S. and Israel.

On May 29, 1949, toward the end of Israel’s War of Independence, which consumed 6,000 Israeli lives (1 percent of the population!), the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, James McDonald, delivered a scolding message from President Harry Truman to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. According to McDonald, Truman “interpreted Israel’s attitude [rejecting the land-for-peace principle; annexing West Jerusalem; refusing to absorb Arab refugees; pro-actively soliciting a massive Jewish ingathering] as dangerous to peace and as indicating disregard of the U.N. General Assembly resolutions of November 29, 1947 [the partition plan] and December 11, 1948 [refugees and internationalization of Jerusalem], reaffirming insistence that territorial compensation should be made [by Israel] for territory taken in excess of November 29 [40% beyond the partition plan!], and that tangible refugee concessions should be made [by Israel] now as essential, preliminary to any prospect for general settlement. The operative part of the note was the implied threat that the U.S. would reconsider its attitude toward Israel,” (“My Mission in Israel 1948-1951,” James McDonald).

Ben-Gurion’s response — with a population of 650,000 Jews, a $1 billion gross domestic product and a slim military force in 1949, compared with 6.3 million Jews, a $260 billion GDP and one of the world’s finest military forces in 2013 — was resolute, as described by McDonald: “[Truman’s] note was unrealistic and unjust. It ignored the facts that the partition resolution was no longer applicable since its basic conditions had been destroyed by Arab aggression which the Jews successfully resisted. … To whom should we turn if Israel were again attacked? Would the U.S. send arms or troops? The United States is a powerful country; Israel is a small and a weak one. We can be crushed, but we will not commit suicide.”

McDonald further wrote: “Two U.N. Security Council resolutions passed [with U.S. support] have implicitly threatened sanctions if Israeli troops were not withdrawn [from the ‘occupied Negev’].” Ben-Gurion reacted defiantly: “Israel has been attacked by six Arab States. As a small country, Israel must reserve the right of self-defense even if it goes down fighting. … As Ben-Gurion once put it to me, ‘What Israel has won on the battlefield, it is determined not to yield at the [U.N. Security] Council table.'”

As a result of Ben-Gurion’s determined stance, “there was apparently indecision and much heart-searching in Washington…. Our [responding] note abandoned completely the stern tone of its predecessor. … Fists and knuckles were unclenched. … The crisis was past. The next few months marked a steady retreat from the intransigence of the United States’ May note. … Washington ceased to lay down the law to Tel Aviv.”

On the eve of the declaration of independence, General George Marshall, Second World War hero and Secretary of State, who was then the most charismatic office-holder in the U.S., sent Ben-Gurion a brutal ultimatum, demanding the postponement of the declaration of independence and acceptance of a U.N. Trusteeship. Marshall, along with Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, the CIA and the top Foggy Bottom bureaucrats imposed a regional military embargo, while Britain supplied arms to Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. They contended that a declaration of independence would turn the oil-producing Arab countries against the U.S., at a time when the threat of a Third World War (USSR vs U.S.) was hovering, which could force the U.S. to fight an oil-starved war. They threatened that Ben-Gurion’s unilateral declaration of independence would trigger a war, which could doom the Jewish people to a second Holocaust in less than ten years, since the U.S. would not provide any assistance to the Jewish state. They contemplated an expanded embargo — unilaterally or multilaterally — should Ben-Gurion ignore the ultimatum.

Ben-Gurion did not blink. McDonald wrote that “[Ben-Gurion] added that much as Israel desired friendship with the U.S., there were limits beyond which it could not go. … Ben-Gurion warned President Truman and the Department of State, through me, that they would be gravely mistaken if they assumed that the threat, or even the use of U.N. sanctions, would force Israel to yield on issues considered vital to its independence and security. … [He] left no doubt that he was determined to resist, at whatever cost, ‘unjust and impossible demands.’ On these he could not compromise.”

Ben-Gurion’s tenacity was vindicated when Israel was admitted to the U.N., despite its rejection of the land-for-peace, Jerusalem and refugees demands, “evidence of the growth of respect for Israel,” McDonald wrote. Moreover, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who was a delegate to the U.N. in 1949, admitted that the partition plan and the anti-Israel “Bernadotte U.N. plan” were not adequate and that the U.S. underestimated the Jewish muscle and determination. General Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposed to consider Israel as a major ally of the U.S.

Ben-Gurion was aware that fending off pressure constituted an integral part of Jewish history, a prerequisite for survival and long-term growth, militarily, diplomatically and economically. On the other hand, succumbing to pressure intensifies further pressure, threatening to transform Israel from a unique strategic asset to a liability. On a rainy day, the U.S. would rather have a defiant — and not a vacillating — ally.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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  • No Jew has the right to yield the rights of the Jewish People in Israel – David Ben Gurion

    (David Ben-Gurion was the first Prime Minister of Israel and widely hailed as the State’s main founder).

    “No Jew has the right to yield the rights of the Jewish People in Israel.
    No Jew has the authority to do so.
    No Jewish body has the authority to do so.
    Not even the entire Jewish People alive today has the right to yield any part of Israel.
    It is the right of the Jewish People over the generations, a right that under no conditions can be cancelled.
    Even if Jews during a specific period proclaim they are relinquishing this right, they have neither the power nor the authority to deny it to future generations.
    No concession of this type is binding or obligates the Jewish People. Our right to the country – the entire country – exists as an eternal right, and we shall not yield this historic right until its full and complete redemption is realized.”

    (David Ben Gurion, Zionist Congress, Basel, Switzerland, 1937.)

    “No country in the world exists today by virtue of its ‘right’.
    All countries exist today by virtue of their ability to defend themselves against those who seek their destruction

  • Herb Rude

    Truman was a in awe of George Marshall and the collection of Anti-semites that made up our State Dept back then. He had not yet learned to trust his own good judgement. They put enormous pressure on him as a result of his recognizing Israel.

    Here is this little state with less than 1 million people standing up to #1 country in the world.

    Ben Gurion was a man of iron, and there weren’t too many of those kind at that time,or even now. Having waited 2000 years to have our own state, it was going to take more than that to give in on the subject of Jerusalem or any of the other issues that the article spoke of. Ben Gurion had balls………………

  • Bella

    Nothing has changed.

    The world would like Israel to disappear. Not only do they dislike Jews, but they need Arab oil.

    Note that the article refers to the imposition of a US arms embargo on the eve of the Declaration of Independence while Britain continued to supply arms to Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. !! – and the attempted (IMHO blackmail) effort of the US to postpone the Declaration.

    In 1947-8 no-one in their right mind would have assumed that Partition – with an 8 mile wide region – would prove longterm.

    Thus, Partition was an attempt by the world, apparently feeling guilty of allowing the Holocaust to proceed, to assuage their conscience – but to see the ‘Jewish Problem’ solved in the Middle East.

    Who would have thought it credible that Israel with <<1M Jews (many of them European city folk seriously traumatized by The Shoah) vs zillions of hostile neighbours had a chance?

    And The Game continues. Obama rants and sends Kerry as our unbiased peace negotiator. … The same Kerry who, on US Senate Letterhead, sent letter of support to the Gaza Flotilla.

    Nothing has changed. We are not allowed to publicise the release of those who committed murder but the talk of settlements never stops, and the NY Times blames a murdered 19 year old who fell asleep on a bus for 'increasing tension with Palestinians' and shows sad picture of the murderer's mother as the party with whom we are to sympathise.

  • Robert B Geller

    Unfortunately, the major difference now is that 78% of American Jews knowingly reelected a president who clearly would not support Israel despite his reelection rhetoric. This majority of voting American Jews reelected him despite his long relationship with a church which preached anti-semitism, his persistent overtures to the Muslim world, and his refusal to go to Israel during his first term. For most American Jews it is more important to support every liberal cause than it is to support the State of Israel. So, we now have Obama, Kerry, Hagel, and Powers dictating the course of American-Israel policies. Hopefully, the current Israeli administration has learned the lessons of Ben Gurion!

  • Dov

    Natanyahu compared to Ben Gurion is a weak. Be Gurion was a staunch Zionist and Natanyahu has no idea what he is.