A President is domestically unpopular as an election approaches, a long-suffering people hope for a better future and a decision is to be made about the recognition of a state in the Middle East. You would be forgiven for thinking I’m writing of on-going events but in fact I am writing of the events of 1948. The similarities between now and then are striking but there are pronounced differences. The actual decision made in each case couldn’t be more different from one another but the motives behind them are largely the same – and they’re not honourable motives.
On May 16th 1948, the incumbent President Harry S. Truman recognised the newly-declared state of Israel. This was against the advice of his State Department, contradicted an earlier American preference for ‘Trusteeship’ over Partition and was an abandonment of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry’s proposals.
America’s hasty recognition gave the newly-formed state at least a perception of legitimacy. Other countries were quick to follow America’s example in recognising Israel. A day later, a bloody and inevitable war ignited and the Middle East Conflict had been born. Truman had played the midwife who helped in its delivery. Given the inevitability of conflict and the fact that partition plan was so obviously destined to fail, the question begs, why did Truman recognise Israel so readily? Was it because he was concerned about the countless homeless refugees that the Holocaust had produced, as has been claimed? This is unlikely. If he had have been then he would have made more provision for the settlement of such refugees within America itself – a move which would have been welcomed by many Jewish Organisations. Instead Truman gave priority to Nazi Sympathisers and SS Troopers from the Baltic States in the form of his Displaced Persons Legislation. No, the real reason for Truman’s decision has more to do with his own personal electoral considerations.
With five millions Jews living in the United States at the time of recognition, many of them concentrated in the key electoral states such as Illinois and New York, recognising Israel was the kind of policy decision that would make all difference to Truman in the election of that year. It wasn’t the first time the President acted in such a way. He had previously timed a policy move to coincide with the upcoming midterm Congressional and New York Mayoral elections when he made his ‘Yom Kippur Statement’. On the eve of that religious festival, Truman made a statement pledging his support for a “viable Jewish State.” His motives for doing so couldn’t have been more obvious.
Contrary to all the predictions, Truman defeated the Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 Presidential election. He would go on to be re-elected four years later. Yes, things worked out alright for Mr Truman – just a shame the same can’t be said for those who have endured the misery of the Middle East Conflict – a conflict that he had exacerbated by his selfish act.
Jump forward to 2011 and once again we see an unpopular President understandably anxious at the prospect of an upcoming Presidential election. Once again a long-suffering people are hoping for a better future and a decision about recognition is to be made. This time that decision will be one of non-recognition as Obama has made clear; America will veto Palestine’s formal request for full recognition once it reaches the Security Council.
One should be careful not to overstate the similarities between Obama and Truman’s respective decision. There are some key differences. For instance, unlike Truman, Obama’s decision will be in defiance of the majority of world opinion. Obama’s decision, unlike Truman’s does not have to factor in an inevitable conflict that would follow recognition. Regardless, Obama will not be recognising Palestine. Supposedly this is because he believes that any Palestinian state must come after the brokering of peace between the Palestinians and Israel – something that Obama must know is at present impossible given Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence on settlement expansion. As such, one does not need to be a Political Scientist to see that Obama’s motives lie in his own electoral considerations.
It seems inevitable that the influence of the Jewish Lobby in Washington and a man’s personal desire to stay in power will triumph as they did in 1948. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner begins his second term I hope he will be aware it will be at the expense of the fully-recognised state that the Palestinians so clearly deserve.