The US & Israel
Since the founding of a Jewish homeland in 1948, America's unique friendship with Israel has weathered war and crises. It is now drawing more public scrutiny than it has in a generation.
In later years, his daughter Margaret would say it was the most difficult decision Harry Truman ever faced as president. Should he support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, or shouldn't he?Skip to next paragraph
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His advisers were split. Clark Clifford - Truman's debonair legal counsel - fervently believed he should. The Jews deserved a sanctuary after the horror of the Holocaust, Clifford argued. Besides, the new state would likely come to pass whether Truman urged it or not.
Secretary of State George Marshall felt otherwise. The retired general was a towering figure in the capital: Truman himself said "there wasn't a decoration big enough" to honor Marshall's leadership during World War II. At a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, Marshall objected to quick US recognition of a Jewish homeland. It would look as if Truman was angling for Jewish votes, he said, and might endanger access to Arab oil. He went so far as to say that if Truman went ahead and recognized the new state, then he, personally, would vote against him in the coming election.
It was an extraordinary rebuke to a sitting chief executive - and it didn't work. Two days later, Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time. The United States announced its recognition of the new nation 11 minutes later.
Truman's support for Israel was far from unconditional. The US provided neither troops nor arms to help the new nation. It would take decades, a string of Arab-Israeli wars, and the context of the long struggle between the US and the Soviet Union to make the US-Israel relationship as close as it is today.
It was a fateful step nonetheless. Ever since, US policy in this volatile part of the world has juggled support of Israel with desire for access to oil fields controlled by Israel's often-hostile neighbors.
Today, the simmering resentments caused by this balancing act are relevant to Americans' daily lives in ways Truman could not have foreseen. Osama bin Laden has exploited the image of the US as Israel's bulwark and a quasi-imperial petroleum power to try to win support in the larger Arab world for his terrorist strikes against the US homeland.
Mr. bin Laden's depiction of the US as the hidden hand behind the region's miseries distorts, in many ways, America's role. Most US actions in the Middle East, historians say, were in pursuit of what presidents believed to be the nation's vital interests.
But answering the plaintive question "Why do they hate us?" may at least begin with the context of turning points of US involvement in the region. "The truth of the matter is that, from Washington's perspective, supporting Israel while ensuring security of Gulf oil supplies has been a very hard line to walk," says Ruhi Ramazani, a retired professor at the University of Virginia and renowned expert on the history of the modern Middle East.
Truth be told, bin Laden cites as grievances events that predate the rise of the US as a Middle East player. He begins with Western colonialism. In his chilling videotaped message made public after the beginning of the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan, he said that the Islamic world "has been tasting this humiliation and ... degradation for more than 80 years."
Bin Laden is referring to the period after World War I, when victors Britain and France were carving up the remains of the losing Ottoman Empire to suit themselves. With Britain's then-colonial secretary Winston Churchill playing a leading role, the allies created Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, and other new states with arbitrary lines on the map. They imposed rulers with few legitimate ties to the ruled.
The exercise was carried out against the backdrop of the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 statement of British foreign secretary Alfred Balfour pledging British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. At the time, Western leaders failed to consider that this promise might set up a clash between Zionist and Palestinian Arab nationalism.
The result was a belt of instability and suppressed political aspirations that stretched from Constantinople to the Indian Ocean. This turmoil is far from forgotten; it is instead living history, the cause of innumerable modern fissures between Arabs, Israel, and the West.