The Myth of American Pressure

Al-Shabaka Policy Brief


Recent reports that the Obama administration offered Israel a series of incentives to continue its limited ten-month moratorium on settlement building have sparked an outcry among Palestinians and their supporters. Although the concessions for halting the construction of new settlements for only 60 days are unprecedented, Washington’s inability to maintain consistent pressure on Israel fits into a much broader historical pattern. The conventional wisdom is that when Washington has exerted pressure on Israeli governments they have eventually succumbed to American demands. However, a closer reading of the historical record and declassified American archival documents reveals a more complex dynamic between the two allies.

In this policy brief, Al-Shabaka Co-Director Osamah Khalil examines four major crises in the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel: the 1949 Lausanne Conference; the 1956 Suez Crisis; the October 1973 War; and the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. He demonstrates that while Israel has on occasion publicly acceded to American demands, privately it has received concessions and agreements that rewarded its intransigence and improved its negotiating position at the expense of Palestinian rights. Khalil argues that American pressure was negligible when compared to the policy options available to the different presidential administrations. Finally, he offers recommendations for Palestinians and their supporters.

The Lausanne Conference

The pattern of public American pressure and private concessions to Israel was established early on. In April 1949, the Lausanne Conference was convened in order to translate the separate armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan signed after the 1948 Palestine War into a final peace. Among the key issues to be negotiated was the fate of over 750,000 Palestinian refugees who were either expelled by or fled from Zionist militias during the war. In accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194, Washington advocated for a substantial repatriation of Palestinian refugees to their homes. Israel, however, was reluctant to consider repatriating more than a token number of refugees.

Israel’s intransigence at Lausanne led to a sharp exchange of letters between President Truman and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Truman was incensed by a report that American attempts to negotiate an agreement were being rebuffed by Tel Aviv and that Israeli officials had informed American representatives that they intended to “bring about a change in the position” of the administration “through means available to them in the United States.”1 Truman’s letter warned that should Israel continue to reject America’s “friendly advice,” Washington would “regretfully be forced to conclude that a revision of its attitude toward Israel has become unavoidable.”2

Although the Israelis appeared to reject Truman’s claims, their position at Lausanne softened over the next two months, including an offer to repatriate 100,000 refugees.3 However, the number was still deemed insufficient by the Arab states and by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Acheson called for the Israelis to repatriate a “substantial number” of refugees -- roughly 250,000 -- with the remainder to be resettled in the neighboring Arab states where they had sought shelter and to receive some compensation.4

A State Department memorandum drafted after the Israeli reply to Truman recommended four actions for the administration to pursue, including: blocking the release of the remainder of a $100 million Export-Import loan, removing the tax-exempt status that U.S.-based Jewish groups enjoyed to raise funds for Israel, refusing Israeli requests for technical assistance and expertise, and not supporting the Israeli position in international organizations.5 Of these recommendations, the Truman administration opted to delay, but not block, the release of the remainder of the loan. In addition, the State Department decided not to use Israel’s application for membership to the United Nations -– a key Israeli goal -– as an opportunity to pressure Tel Aviv at Lausanne. Rather, Washington believed that Israel’s admission to the UN would compel concessions by the Arab states in the negotiations.6

By late August the loan issue escalated. Responding to an inquiry by the Israeli government, the Export-Import Bank replied that it had approved the loan and the delay was due to the State Department. Eliahu Elath, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., responded angrily to the news, and informed an American delegation at a luncheon in Washington that such actions “could only be interpreted as attempted duress.” Elath added that “such tactics would not succeed. In fact, they could be expected to have the opposite result.”7

Acheson discussed the situation with President Truman the day after the luncheon. By early September, $2.35 million of the $49 million was released to Israel.8 This amateurish attempt at diplomatic pressure was the last one the Truman administration would undertake with Israel. It would also establish a consistent pattern of American behavior toward Israel: although Washington had an array of policy options available, the Truman administration and its successors lacked the political will to employ them effectively and consistently.