Lawrence Davidson on American Presidents and Israel
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American Presidents and Israel
  Interview with Lawrence Davidson

Palestine Studies TV  |  October, 2010

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Cléa Thouin: In its summer 2010 issue, the Journal of Palestine Studies published an article by Professor Lawrence Davidson on
President Harry Truman and the establishment of Israel .
I’m Cléa Thouin, assistant editor for the Journal of Palestine Studies. Here with me today to talk about his article is Lawrence Davidson, professor of Middle East history at West Chester University.

Welcome to Palestine Studies TV.

Lawrence Davidson: It is my pleasure.

CT: Prof Davidson, what is it about American national politics that allows Zionists to have such influence?

LD: American politics is lobby centered, and this is true at almost all levels: local levels, state levels, national levels. And this is well known in terms of domestic policy, but it also is the way of the world in terms of foreign policy. So essentially, if there is a part of the world that you have a domestic interest group, particularly focused on Cuba for Cuban refugees, and of course the Zionists and the Christian fundamentalists in terms of the Middle East, if you have got these very well financed and organized special interests, they will have the capacity to organize and, essentially, shape foreign policy through their influence in Congress etc, and the political parties, and make national policy reflect their parochial interests rather than any abstract or ideal national interest.

And so, this has been the case in the formation of Middle East foreign policy certainly since 1967, but you can trace back the influence right into the 1920s. I mean, in 1922, just a few years after the Balfour Declaration, you have a joint Congressional resolution supporting the Balfour Declaration. In Zionist history, that is marked as the beginning of the American commitment to a Jewish state in Palestine and they will always trace it back into that early 1920s date. To some extent, they are quite accurate, they have been building that influence from the early 1920s on.

CT: In the development of this influence, what made Harry Truman’s administration so important?

LD: Up until Harry Truman’s time, the presidency sort of stood outside of that. For instance, in the 1930s, when you had rioting in Palestine, the Zionists would go to whoever the president was, Harding or Hoover or whoever, and they would say we want you to put pressure on the British to step on the Arabs and not the Zionists. In other words we want you to take sides, and pressure the British through taking sides. And the president would always say no; this is a British affair, its British territory and we don’t want to alienate our ally.

And even with Roosevelt, Roosevelt understood the need to finesse domestic pressures and the pressures coming from the Arabs because you needed their resources, and you had to work with the British etc. He had a statesman like top-down view of this thing, but Harry Truman didn’t do that. Harry Truman was the first president that essentially carried the Congressional attitude that Palestine is essentially a domestic political issue over into the presidency. Now the Zionists had the influence in the Congress, the political parties, and the presidency. Harry Truman was the tipping point for that.

CT: What could possibly break the influence of the Israel lobby in Washington? And what is the probability of that happening anytime soon?

LD: Well, if you want to change policy what you have to do is compete at this special interest level. And that is what is kind of starting. You saw Mearsheimer and Walt’s book on the Israel lobby along with President Carter’s book Peace not Apartheid; these are the two opening shots in a campaign to essentially change, at least, elite public opinion. Then you get J Street, the formulation of J Street, as a way of trying to compete with AIPAC.

The real question is, yeah, in the long run we will be able to compete against AIPAC and eventually kind of almost deny it of the kind of influence that it has now, the question is will there be anything left of Palestine at the time. Once you have got the Israelis successfully absorbing all the lands they want, then AIPAC can go away, they all can retire and go up and ski in Utah or something like that.

CT: Going back to Truman, in your article you talk about how Truman sidelined the State Department. Why did the State Department lose that battle over the shaping of the Israel-Palestine policies?

LD: Well, these agencies their influence with the president is based on tradition. There is a longstanding understanding on the part of most presidents, with some exceptions, that they didn’t know anything about foreign policy. There are some exceptions like Wilson, and those who thought they did, but most of them didn’t know anything, they knew they didn’t know anything and they weren’t really interested in foreign policy, most of them. The tradition grew up that the State Department was the department that, essentially, took care of this stuff.  And they themselves, the people in the State Department, grew to a point where they assumed that was their role and traditionally it became their role. However, structurally, they served at the pleasure of the guy in the White House. They weren’t appointees except at the very top, but they were employers of the President, of the executive branch.

So if you get someone like Wilson or Truman who, at once, thinks they know a lot about something and is the type of personality that doesn’t want to hear what he doesn’t want to hear then you are working on a potential clash there. Now Wilson cut out the State Department as well, he gave this speech on self-determination and he didn’t even refer to Robert Lansing, his State Department Secretary of State. And afterwards Lansing said, you know you apply the theme of self-determination around the world, including Europe, and it’s just a formula for disaster, a formula for war etc. But Wilson was ideologically driven and he didn’t care what Lansing thought.

The same thing with Truman. Truman has a class bias against the elites. He thinks the State Department is full of elites, stripe-paints boys. And he comes in and he doesn’t even know them and he doesn’t like them, just on general principals. He is insecure, and the way that he overcomes that insecurity is taking a very hard lined ‘I’m the Boss, you do what I tell you’ kind of thing, and that translates to the ‘Buck stops here’. And so, when it comes to Palestine he thinks he knows everything. Because he read the Bible and what else is there to know. And he read FDR’s correspondence with the Saudis and stuff like that, so he thinks he knows the Arab attitude.

About the Palestinians, about the things on the ground, he knows nothing. Nor do [sic] his advisors, but that’s ok it’s a domestic issue. It’s tied into his political ambitions and the point is there is no point of leverage for the State Department to act against this. They can send Marshall in, Marshall is a very respected man, he is going to be the Secretary of State, and Truman respects him. But, he is not going to let Marshall dictate policies that Truman thinks are going to lose him the election. There is no point of leverage that they can work against him.

Truman, and the Zionists too, are actually the types of people who hold grudges. So the people like Henderson, the head of the Near East and Africa division who worked very diligently pushing what he considers to be the best policy for the United States, ultimately he will accede to the President, but he is going to push what he thinks he knows. Truman takes homage to this and afterwards they will, essentially, get him out. They will punish him and send him to India or something like that. Truman is a gruff, aggressive, insecure, biased kind of guy and if you stand against him he is going to hold a grudge.

CT: How else is Truman’s legacy still with us?

LD: Well, I think that it is with us by virtue of the fact that everyone now knows that the State Department has essentially been emasculated. The tradition of it being a center of folks who have deep knowledge of different parts of the world, and that they then give that knowledge to the policy makers who take that knowledge seriously is gone. They still have plenty of people who know a lot, and some of my students want to go into the Foreign Service and I always tell them you can do this, but I cannot imagine a more frustrating job than being a middle echelon player in the State Department or even in the intelligence agencies, because you develop all of this knowledge and insight, you know the languages, you know the cultures, all of that stuff about a particular area and then you give your advice, you write your reports, and if it does not fit into some domestic political ideological angle that is working now amongst the Congress of the political parties, then they just trash it.

CT: Professor Davidson, thank you very much for talking to Palestine Studies TV.

LD: It is my pleasure, I enjoyed it very much. 

LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is professor of Middle East history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA, and the author of America's Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University of Florida Press, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentuck Press, 2009).

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