Obama and Eisenhower: Some parallels

The 1954 Alpha Plan called for Israel to make territorial concessions and accept Arab refugees.

Obama red cairo 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama red cairo 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Historical comparisons have to be drawn with caution. No two events are identical. The pitfalls of historical analogy are as numerous as its benefits. However, comparing events in history can clarify and sharpen our understanding of the phenomenon under discussion. In this spirit, it's possible to draw a comparison between President Barack Obama's new policy toward Israel and that pursued by president Dwight Eisenhower and his administration from 1953 until 1957, when it also changed the direction of US policy toward Israel. The similarities are quite striking. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles devised a policy as lukewarm toward Israel as it was friendly toward the Muslim world. Assuming the presidency in the midst of the Cold War, the new administration sought to build coalitions aimed at thwarting further advances by communism following the fall of Eastern Europe and China and the invasion of South Korea by North Korea. By the early 1950s, decision-makers in the US and Britain feared the Soviet Union would invade the Middle East, not to mention political infiltration, which they sought to prevent by forging alliances in the region. Eisenhower and Dulles believed that a closer relationship with Arab and Muslim countries was necessary. To achieve that, a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict was deemed essential. Reaching a settlement would entail painful concessions by Israel. For Israel to agree to make those concessions, pressure would have to be exerted. Furthermore, Israel's policy of retaliation against terrorist attacks emanating from Jordan and Egypt was seen as an obstacle to attaining such a settlement. Israel had to be persuaded, indeed pressured, to adopt a policy of restraint. To be sure, Dulles confided that asking Israel to show restraint was not enough if no alternative was proposed for Israel to feel secure. Israel did not feel secure in the first half of the 1950s. Indeed, it felt very much in danger, cornered diplomatically and under attack militarily. Its neighbors were adamant in their refusal to recognize its existence, let alone negotiate peace with it. The policy pursued by the Eisenhower administration only served to render its sense of isolation more acute. BY THE END of 1954, a peace plan was devised by the US and Britain. The so-called Alpha Plan called, among other things, for Israel to make territorial concessions in the Negev, agree to a territorial corridor on its sovereign territory to link Jordan with Egypt and accept some Arab refugees. Israel strongly objected. Following Israel's victory in the Sinai Campaign of 1956, Eisenhower considered imposing sanctions if it refused to withdraw from the recently captured Sinai Peninsula. In the eyes of Eisenhower and Dulles, Israel's existence had to be reluctantly tolerated. Dulles said so, albeit in different words. Eisenhower himself stated that he didn't know whether he would have been in favor of the establishment of the state had he been president in 1948. However, now that it was a fact, the US had to deal with it. The objective of his administration was clear: to elicit the support of the Arab and Muslim countries in order to face the communist threat. To achieve that, the US had to remove any obstacle in the way. In the context of the Cold War, there was no need to curry favor with Israel. Its backing in any future conflict with the Soviet Union was taken for granted. Israel was not seen as an asset to be strengthened, but as an obstacle to be tempered. British diplomats in the early 1950s were sometimes astonished at the hostile attitude of US officials toward Israel, even on minor matters that would not have meant much in the context of wider US interests in the Middle East. Certainly, Israel today is a much stronger country than it was in the 1950s. Circumstances today are, in some respects, quite different than they were then. However, it is hard not to draw some parallels between the new policy adopted by the Obama administration and the new policy pursued back in the 1950s by the Eisenhower administration. Incidentally, both Eisenhower and Obama followed presidents known for their different approach to the area and to Israel in particular: Harry Truman and George W. Bush. The parallels that can be drawn, then, go deeper than can be seen at first glance. The writer lectures at the diplomacy program at Tel Aviv University.