President Dwight Eisenhower is often used by Israel’s detractors to show that a determined president can bend Israel to his will. More recently, some of the defenders of President Obama’s Middle East policy have tried to fend off accusations that Obama is the most anti-Israel president in history by saying that Eisenhower was worse. The truth is Eisenhower started out hostile to Israel but grew to appreciate its value to the United States by the end of his term.
Anyone who asserts the omnipotence of the Israeli lobby has to ignore Eisenhower’s first term when he said that he would make decisions “as though we didn’t have a Jew in America.” His Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, believed that Truman had “gone overboard in favor of Israel,” and said he was determined to carry out foreign policy without seeking the approval of the Jews while characterizing the Israelis as “millstones around our necks.”
Eisenhower believed that the creation of a Jewish state was impractical. He did not think it could survive without substantial U.S. military involvement that he feared would destabilize the region, open the door to Soviet infiltration, and threaten oil supplies. He believed that Israel was one small piece on the global strategic chessboard that made his policies more difficult.
Eisenhower’s attitude toward Israel was reinforced when Israel attacked Egypt in October 1956 as part of a secret plan to coordinate with Britain and France to undermine Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. Eisenhower was personally offended; the attack took place a week before the presidential election, his allies didn’t consult him, and the war had the potential to expand into a wider conflict that might have involved the Soviets. He was committed to aiding whoever was the victim of aggression, Eisenhower said, and he also believed that if force were permitted to settle a political dispute like Suez, then the future of the United Nations was in danger.
Eisenhower’s reputation as anti-Israel is largely based on the pressure he exerted on Israel to withdraw from the territory captured in the Sinai. Contrary to the common view that Eisenhower was taking a principled stand against aggression when he opposed the attacks, he was also motivated by security interests and the fear of an embargo.
Eisenhower went on television to criticize Israel’s failure to withdraw and warned that he would impose sanctions if it failed to comply. Eisenhower was prepared to cut off all economic aid, to lift the tax-exempt status of the United Jewish Appeal, and to apply sanctions on Israel. Members of Congress opposed the threats, and said they would prevent them from being enforced, but Israel could not risk a breach with its most important ally.
Arabists saw Eisenhower’s success in forcing Israel’s withdrawal as proof that America could impose terms on the Israelis consistent with U.S. interests in the region. This precedent gave the Arab lobby reason to believe that it was possible to pressure the United States to use its influence to force Israeli concessions
Eisenhower’s record repudiates the case made by professors Walt and Mearsheimer and the Arabists who assert that America’s position in the Middle East would improve if a president would ignore the omnipotent Israeli lobby and force Israel to capitulate to Arab demands. When Eisenhower did what they advocated, relations with much of the Arab world worsened.
The Soviets gained a foothold in the region, Egypt joined the Soviet camp and was working to weaken America’s allies, the Saudis failed to emerge as a reliable counterweight to promote U.S. interests, U.S. troops were forced to intervene to save pro-Western regimes in Lebanon and Jordan, and the pro-Western government of Iraq was overthrown. Rather than change their preconceptions, however, the Arabists have stuck to them and remained unmoved by the accumulation of evidence of the fallacy of their position.
To his credit, Eisenhower recognized his policy was a failure. In his second term, he became disenchanted with Saudi Arabia’s flirtation with Nasser and opposition to U.S. policy, and concerned with the nationalist forces unleashed and stoked by Nasser and the Egyptian’s efforts to subvert American interests in the region.
Israel benefited from the change in outlook. Israel emerged as a potential asset for the first time in July 1958, after the pro-Western government in Iraq was overthrown and nationalist forces were threatening the regimes in Lebanon and Jordan. Just two years after condemning the nation’s allies for their intervention at Suez, Eisenhower sent U.S. troops to bolster the government in Lebanon. He also agreed to ship vital strategic materials to Jordan as part of a joint American-British airlift. Saudi Arabia, however, refused to allow either country to fly through their air space and even denied the U.S. access to the American airfield at Dhahran. Instead, the supplies were flown through Israel, which was happy to cooperate. The Jordan crisis helped bring about a nearly 180-degree shift in the administration’s attitude.
This was reflected in the August 1958 memorandum submitted to the National Security Council by the NSC Planning Board, which concluded: “It is doubtful whether any likely US pressure on Israel would cause Israel to make concessions which would do much to satisfy Arab demands which—in the final analysis—may not be satisfied by anything short of the destruction of Israel. Moreover, if we choose to combat radical Arab nationalism and to hold Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary, then a logical corollary would be to support Israel as the only pro-West power left in the Near East.”
President Obama would be wise to learn from Eisenhower’s experience.