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Uri Pilichowski
Author, Educator and Father - Brother to All

The Confusing Presidential Israel Policies

US president Harry S. Truman holds a Torah scroll, presented to him by Chaim Weizmann, right, in Washington, May 25, 1948. (AP Photo)

Zionists worked hard in the farms, battlefields, and diplomatic offices of foreign ministries in their efforts to create the first Jewish state in over 2,000 years. An important factor in the early Zionists gaining international backing for a Jewish state was attainment of America’s support. Zionist leaders from Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis lobbied American elected officials, including Presidents, to support a Jewish state being founded in Palestine.

Since the founding of the Zionist movement, American Presidents have overwhelmingly supported the foundation and the continued existence of a Jewish State in the land of Israel. As supportive as American Presidents were, during their administrations their policies towards Israel were often confusing and difficult to understand.

President Truman met Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann (later to be Israel’s first president) in the White House on November 19, 1947. Students of Israeli history will find the topic of their discussion strange. Weizmann decided to spend the entire time with the President – a week and a half before the United Nations vote on the Palestinian Partition Plan – on the importance of the Negev Desert to Israel’s future and why the President should out his efforts in ensuring the Negev remained in Israel’s hands when the United Nations maps partitioning Palestine between a Jewish and Arab state were drawn.

The records of that conversation tell of President Truman’s fascination with both Weizmann and the Negev. Weizmann argued the Arab states around Palestine already had ports on the Red Sea and through Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The only way for Israeli ships to access Africa and Asia would be through the Negev’s opening to water and the Red Sea. This access to Africa and Asia would be essential to Israel’s future. The challenge facing Israel was that American Ambassador Hershel Johnson was scheduled to present America’s position – as drafted by the State Department – opposing Israel’s retaining the Negev Desert. In the middle of his meeting with Zionist leaders trying to prepare them for America’s position, Ambassador Johnson was called away for a phone call where America’s new position was explained to him. The forming of American policy was messy and almost miscommunicated.

Between the United Nations Partition Plan vote in November 1947 and the date of the scheduled British withdrawal from Palestine, President Truman began wavering on his support for an independent Jewish state. President Truman, a Democrat, was upset by Zionist leaders, especially Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, support of Republicans. He also felt it was premature for a Jewish state, and that animosity from Arab states made postponing the founding of a Jewish state the wiser of the moves. He decided on a change of course and banned all Zionist lobbyists from the White House.

Zionist leaders were worried President Truman’s friend Eddie Jacobson convinced the President to see the man he admired so much, Chaim Weizmann. President Truman relented, met with Weizmann and gave him his word that America hadn’t changed its position on the partition plan and the Jewish people could count on Truman supporting a Jewish state. It was a shock to the Zionists – and to Truman – when American Ambassador Warren Austin announced the next day at the United Nations that America now supported an “international trusteeship” for Palestine. Zionist leaders were furious at Truman’s betrayal, but Weizmann supported President Truman, and the President was grateful that Weizmann gave him the benefit of the doubt. Truman eventually became the first world leader to recognize the founding of the State of Israel.

On March 2, 1980 American Ambassador to the United Nations, Donald F. McHenry, surprised the world – and his own President – by voting for a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. While the Carter administration had long opposed Israeli settlements, they were not in favor of calling for action to be taken on Jerusalem. President Carter had specifically instructed his aids to abstain on the vote, and yet embarrassingly the American Ambassador had defied his instructions.

President Carter said, “We believe that the future disposition of existing settlements must be determined during the current autonomy negotiations [the ongoing Mideast peace talks]. “As to Jerusalem, we strongly believe that Jerusalem should be undivided with free access to the holy places for all faiths, and that its status should be determined in the negotiations for a comprehensive peace settlement. “The United States’ vote in the United Nations was approved with the understanding that all references to Jerusalem would be deleted. The failure to communicate this clearly resulted in a vote in favor of the resolution, rather than in an abstention.”

The Washington Post reported “Officials said that McHenry was not at fault, and it was understood that the foul-up occurred in the State Department in transmitting Carter’s instructions to the U.S. delegation at the United Nations. Before the president issued his statement, administration officials said yesterday that he and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance had approved the U.S. position.” Once again, different voices with different opinions in the same administration muddled the formation of Israel policy and miscommunicated it to the world.

These are just two examples of an American Presidential administration having an unclear and often contradictory policy on Israel. It is easy to paint administrations as anti-Israel when it issues votes and statements that aren’t as supportive of Israel as the Pro-Israel community would prefer. The reality is that many times an American administration doesn’t have a clear Israel policy and its directives are issued in confusing statements and policies. The Pro-Israel community, both in America and Israel, needs to recognize this phenomenon and utilize a more patient, nuanced, and long-game approach to any administration.

About the Author
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is an educator. As a teacher, author and speaker, he teaches Torah and Politics, where he specifically emphasizes rational thought and conceptual analysis.
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