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New Texts Out Now: Irene Gendzier, Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, & the Foundations of US Policy in the Middle East

Irene Gendzier, Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, & the Foundations of US Policy in the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Irene Gendzier (IG): The desire to make sense of US policy in the Middle East, and particularly, US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a subject that is regularly on the mainstream agenda and just as regularly distorted.

J: What topics, issues and literature does this book address?

IG: This study addresses the formation of postwar US foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, with an emphasis on the intersection of political and economic interests framing US policy in this region in a period of decolonization and emergent nationalist forces. In the above context, among the key issues shaping policy was the protection of US oil companies operating in the Middle East and its impact on the formation of US policy in Palestine and after 1948, in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The literature addressed by this study is the rich dossier of studies on the politics, international relations, political economy of policy making found in primary and secondary sources. The voluminous sources of declassified US foreign policy as well as presidential papers, provided invaluable resources that while, accessible, are often invisible in the secondary literature.

J: How does work relate to your previous work?

IG: Dying to Forget is an attempt to situate the origins of US foreign policy in the Middle East in the postwar years in the triangle of Oil, Power and Palestine. That combination was rooted in the dominant forces affecting US policy in the region, as I had earlier discovered in focusing on US intervention in Lebanon in 1958, Notes From the Minefield, U.S. Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945-1958, (Columbia University Press 1997, paperback 2006), although the configuration of forces in Palestine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differed and examining them opened doors into aspects of political, economic, as well as diplomatic relations that challenged conventional accounts of US policy in the evolution of that conflict.

J: Who do you hope will read this book? What sort of impact would you like it to have?

IG: I would like those interested in US foreign policy, the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to consider what US sources reveal about Washington’s perception of the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including how the interpretation and official talk of the conflict in the 1940s differs from its current analogue.

I would like those interested in US policy to reflect on how US officials viewed the Palestine question in the mid-1940s; how their views of the conflict in Palestine evolved in relation to the struggle in Palestine; how they came to view the Palestine refugee problem as central to the solution of the conflict; and why and how the direction of US policy dramatically changed as a result of the reevaluation of Israel’s potential role in US regional strategy.

J:  What other projects are you working on now?

IG: I have recently completed an updated edition of my book, Development Against Democracy, Manipulating Political Change in the Third World, to be published by  Pluto Press, London, in the fall of 2017.  It is a work critical of postwar studies of modernization and political development that continues to be relevant to contemporary US foreign and domestic policy. At the present time I am also deliberating on the contours of a third volume on US foreign policy in the Middle East, following my work on 1948 and 1958. 

Excerpt from Part VI, “In Place of a Conclusion, Reflections on Discovery, Denial and Deferral.”

In the period immediately following the end of the Second World War, the State Department was preoccupied with ensuring that the United States had access to and control over the petroleum resources of the Arab East. Keenly aware of the indispensability of petroleum to defense, U.S. officials were also aware of the inseparability of oil from the larger context of political problems affecting the region. The months between November 1947 and passage of UNGA Resolution 181 supporting the partition of Palestine and Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948 were defined by escalating violence.

As the preceding chapters have shown, the elite policymakers in Washington were aware of the deteriorating conditions in Palestine. Developments on the ground, which led to the flight and expulsion of Palestinians who rapidly became refugees, were described by U.S. consuls. By the winter of 1948, U.S. policymakers were prepared to abandon their support of partition in favor of a temporary UN trusteeship over Palestine. Instead, they accepted the results of the vigorous and effective lobbying spearheaded by the Jewish Agency’s representative in the U.S., Eliahu Epstein, who, with his insider allies, succeeded in reversing the prevailing opposition to partition. With President Truman’s move to offer de facto recognition of the new state immediately after Israel’s declaration of independence, there followed the radical shift in orientation of U.S. officials from a critical opposition to partition and statehood and toward unqualified support for Israeli sovereignty.

Major U.S. officials, however, remained formally committed to promoting a consensual accord over the conflict over Palestine. In the process, they also remained committed to persuading the Provisional Government of Israel (PGI) to accept the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, as recommended by UN resolutions, culminating in UNGA Resolution 194 of December 11, 1948. Official U.S. pronouncements attest to the extent of

U.S. support for Palestinian refugee repatriation and Washington’s seemingly unwavering criticism of Israel’s rejection of the same. As the later chapters show, however, U.S. policy was shaped primarily by calculations of force, which ultimately led Washington to legitimize Israel’s reliance on military force in its determination of boundaries and refugee policy.

The trajectory of U.S. policy in these years can be expressed as a three-part process: from discovery to denial to deferral. Each phase of policy exposed changes in direction that were not always mutually exclusive. A chronological sketch accompanied by official pronouncements sharply demarcates these turnings from acknowledgment to criticism to accommodation.

The discovery phase includes U.S. recognition of the importance of the Palestine question in 1945; the U.S. commitment to a policy of consensus and binationalism at the time of the Anglo-American Commit- tee of Enquiry in 1946; Washington’s increasing awareness of Zionist objectives in Palestine during passage of the UN partition resolution (UNGA Resolution 181); and the Jewish Agency’s refusal to accept the U.S. recommendation of a truce in Palestine several weeks prior to Israel’s  declaration of independence in 1948.

The denial phase corresponds to the period following Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, when U.S. officials criticized the PGI’s position on the origin and treatment of Palestinian refugees. In accord with UN resolutions, Washington endorsed Palestinian refugee repatriation and resolution of issues bearing on territorial expansion and the future of Jerusalem, as set out in UNGA Resolution 194, December 11, 1948. The critical reports of Israeli indifference to and rejection of these UN resolutions can be found in statements by Philip Jessup, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the U.S. ambassador to London, and the CIA in the period from July to October 1948.

The deferral phase is marked by the gradual movement of U.S. officials such as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defense secretary toward accommodation and deference to Israeli policies. Collectively, they argued in favor of diminishing pressure on Israel to accept policies it considered unacceptable in an effort to ensure the Jewish state’s western orientation. The justification for this turn in U.S. policy revolved around calculations that Israel would be useful in U.S. strategic planning for the Middle East.

However, as the National Security Council emphasized in October 1949, the failure to resolve the refugee problem remained a cause of concern, lest it lead to the radicalization and destabilization of the entire region. The result was increasing emphasis on the role of economic development in dealing with the refugee question in an attempt to blunt the disparity in economic and political development between Israel and the Arab states. 

1. Deferral  1948

On July 1, 1948, Philip Jessup, who was then U.S. special delegate to the United Nations, argued the case for withholding pressure on Israel on the basis of the strategic importance of Palestine/Israel. Jessup’s argument revolved around three points. First:

From the strategic viewpoint we assume that Palestine, together with the neighboring countries is a major factor presumably in any future major conflict this region would be of vital importance to us as a potential base area and with respect to our lines of communication. Presumably also the oil resources of the area are considered vital. It is our feeling that this last point may not perhaps have been dealt with adequately and frankly enough in official and public discussion of the Palestine question.

From the economic viewpoint it is probable that with the exception of oil our trade and other economic relations with Palestine and the other near east countries are not directly of any substantial importance. Indirectly, however, the economic stability and developing prosperity of Palestine and the Middle East area under peaceful conditions could make a very substantial contribution to the economic recovery of the world generally and thus contribute to the economic welfare of the U.S. With respect to oil, we recognize that the oil supply from the area is of great importance in the European recovery program. Were it not for this factor, however, and the strategic importance of oil, we should probably not allow the economic importance of this commodity to condition our judgment substantially with regard to Palestine.

Second, Israel was in a stronger position than had been anticipated, probably including by its own leaders.

Israel is also in strong military position, perhaps stronger than they thought they might be. From point of view of numbers, organization, discipline and efficiency they are more than a match for most of Arab states put together. Abdullah has only very effective force on Arab side and effectiveness of this force is almost undoubtedly due to British elements. Israel has been successful in holding its own positions and beyond this has established effective control of western Galilee.

Third, Jessup reasoned that, under the circumstances, it was desirable to ensure Israel’s westward orientation, which meant lessening Washington’s pressure on Tel Aviv to comply with UNGA resolutions to avert its reliance on the USSR.

If in process of negotiation PGI is pushed too hard to accept arrangements intolerable from their point of view, [it] seems clear that this will increase its difficulties in dealing with communist-inspired dissident elements and will also force it to rely more extensively on Russian support.

By withholding such pressure, which Jessup interpreted as treating Israel fairly, “it [Israel] could become a force operating to our own advantage and to advantage of Arab countries.” Given his positive assessment of Israel’s military position, the change in policy that Jessup recommended was clearly designed to enhance U.S. strategic capacity.

[Excerpted from Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, & the Foundations of US Policy in the Middle East, by Irene Gendzier. Copyright (c) 2015 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.]

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