Arabists Never Fade Away
I always enjoy listening to former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer discuss American policy in the region — because he eruditely expresses the essence of the Arabist point of view. Speaking on a panel at the recent Association of Israel Studies conference at Brandeis, Kurtzer stated that the problem with US-Israel relations is that the Israelis are undiplomatic and don’t take American advice.
When I suggested that his analysis reflected the discredited view of Arabists, Kurtzer condescendingly said that Arabists don’t exist anymore. He then asserted that the US-Israel relationship had grown stronger under the Obama administration.
At the risk of sounding equally condescending, it seems that the ambassador slept through the entire eight years of the Obama administration.
At the Brandeis event, Kurtzer gave a litany of examples of Israelis behaving badly — such as Netanyahu’s failure to follow protocol in arranging to speak to the US Congress, and then using that forum to attack the president’s position on Iran. I agreed that Israelis can be undiplomatic — as shocking a notion as gambling in Rick’s place in Casablanca — but I pointed out that the United States is in no position to lecture Israelis on diplomatic niceties. When it comes to Israel, our government behaves uniquely undiplomatically. The State Department publicly condemns Israeli policy on a regular basis; no other Western democracy is treated with the same disdain and disrespect.
The other point that Kurtzer made — that Israel has the chutzpah not to take American advice — is quintessential Arabist thinking. It is predicated on the thesis that America knows what’s best for Israel, and that the United States must save Israel from itself, as George Ball famously put it. The United States does not presume to tell Europeans what to do, so why does Kurtzer believe that the United States is entitled to dictate policy to Israel, or that Israelis should accept those instructions?
It is ironic that Kurtzer made this argument on the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, given that President Lyndon Johnson had advised Israel not to go to war. Had Israel listened to Johnson, it is likely that the country would have suffered catastrophic losses once Egypt and Syria invaded — in what they had promised would be a war of extermination. Furthermore, if Israel had listened to the United States instead of acting as a sovereign nation defending its own interests, David Ben-Gurion would never have declared independence, the Iraqi nuclear reactor would not have been destroyed and, rather than negotiating a treaty with Sadat, Menachem Begin would have attended an international conference where peace would have been vetoed by the other Arab leaders.
As to the nonsensical claim that Arabists went the way of the dodo years ago, one need only recall the policies and statements of Obama, and the officials in his administration. For example, Obama’s Pentagon, another home of Arabists, produced a document that said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has a negative influence on American interests in the region — and that the perception of US favoritism for Israel stimulates anti-American sentiment.
This was reminiscent of the 1940s, when the Pentagon tried to sabotage President Harry Truman’s endorsement of the creation of a Jewish state by issuing dire warnings about the need to send US troops to enforce partition. After the Arab League threatened to deny pipeline rights to American companies if the US government did not change its policy, then-Secretary of Defense James Forrestal warned that Americans would all have to drive four-cylinder cars without Middle Eastern oil.
In his final foreign policy address, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry assailed Israel — America’s closest ally in the Middle East — for more than an hour. He ignored all of America’s other foreign policy concerns and devoted the entire address to lambasting Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. While Kerry heaped scorn on Israeli democracy, he had nothing to say about Mahmoud Abbas or Hamas canceling elections and arresting, exiling or killing their opponents.
Yet the clearest expression of the Arabist mentality came from Obama himself. In 1951, the State Department’s G. Lewis Jones explained that US policy was “based on the assumption that Israel needs peace more than do the Arab states, and that it would be Israel, not the Arabs, who would have to make concessions in order to obtain this peace, given the present Arab determination not to come to a settlement with Israel.” Similarly, Obama said that Israel is in a position of strength; consequently, Israelis “are in a position to take some risks for peace.”
As Dennis Ross noted, Obama’s enmity toward Israel was so obvious to Israelis that they no longer believed they could count on American support in a crisis, and therefore, they were unwilling to take risks for peace — which Obama expected them to willingly accept without any corresponding pressure on the Palestinians.
While Arabists have always argued that developing closer relations with Israel would harm our ties with the Arab states, Obama’s hostility toward Israel did nothing to improve US-Arab relations. Instead, his policies alienated our Arab allies and provoked the Gulf states and Israel to find common cause to oppose the Obama agenda.
And lest you think things have changed in the Trump administration, the Arabists have already demonstrated their staying power by convincing the president to ask Israel to restrain settlement construction and to renege on his promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Kurtzer should be happy, because Israel has responded more diplomatically and listened to Trump’s admonition regarding settlements.
If Israel is to achieve peace, defend its citizens and maintain its sovereignty, the time may come when Israel’s leaders will also have to speak plainly, if undiplomatically, to this administration’s officials, ignore Trump’s advice and act based on their evaluation of their country’s interests.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.