Oil drives our Israel policy: New government documents reveal a very different history of America and the Middle East

The protection of American oil interests has been at the heart of U.S. policies for decades

Published January 4, 2016 10:57AM (EST)


Excerpted from "Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East"

The role of the United States in the Arab-Israeli conflict is an inextri­cable part of history in this region. Confronting that role is indispens­able to understanding both U.S. policy in the conflict and its course. A knowledge of the foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East in the postwar years is indispensable to an understanding of current U.S. policies in the Middle East in which oil, Palestine, and Israel play such significant roles.

The record of U.S. policy from 1945 to 1949 challenges fundamental assumptions about U.S. understanding and involvement in the struggle over Palestine that continue to dominate mainstream interpretations of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Coming to grips with the U.S. record and its frequently mythified depiction of the struggle over Palestine is criti­cal. Those engaged in the creation of the Common Archive, a project of Zochrot, the Israeli NGO, in which Israelis and Palestinians have joined to reconstruct the history of Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel in 1948, clearly understand the importance of this record. Palestinian historians have long written about this history, and Israel’s “New His­torians” have confirmed it in their challenge to the dominant Israeli narrative of the war of 1948.

The Middle East in 2014 is not a mirror image of what it was in 1948, when the struggle over Palestine was at its height. In the imme­diate postwar years, the United States defined its policy in the Near and Middle East in terms of assuring unimpeded access and control by U.S. oil companies of its great material prize, petroleum. Congressional hearings on the role of petroleum and the national defense envisioned petroleum as a weapon of war. It followed that ensuring the presence and stability of compatible regimes was an essential dimension of pol­icy, as was containing and crushing those whose nationalist and reform­ist orientation rendered them suspect.

At once undermining and inheriting Britain’s imperial mantle, the American state was widely viewed by political leaders in the area as an anti-imperialist power, albeit driven by petroleum and political ambi­tion. Its footprints were found in widely divergent endeavors, including missionary and educational enterprises. But in the immediate postwar years, Washington was increasingly drawn into the Palestine problem, whose origins linked Europe’s dark history with Zionist ambitions pro­tected by the British mandate. The ensuing struggle over Palestine was accelerated in the years that followed as Washington became increas­ingly involved in its outcome, aware of the inevitable link between the fate of Palestine and U.S. oil and defense interests in the Middle East. The controversies over British policy, over partition, the war of 1948, the armistice agreements, and the Lausanne Conference in 1949 con­sumed Washington’s Near and Middle East specialists and their repre­sentatives at the United Nations. This history is not new. The subject has long evoked interest and crit­icism. What was taboo yesterday, however, is openly discussed today, as the weight of current wars compels a confrontation with events that can no longer be ignored.

Disclosures of previously classified information, as well as previously ignored sources, whether of Palestinian or Israeli origin, have further altered the record. Although U.S. sources have long been open, they have been inadequately examined, significantly contributing to the flawed history of U.S. postwar policy in the Middle East, including oil and the transformation of Palestine.

Main themes

A number of key questions have long dominated scholarly accounts of postwar U.S. policy in the Middle East, and these questions compel con­sideration. Among them is the ongoing controversy over the bureau­cratic origins of U.S. policymaking in the Middle East in the postwar years. Did the State Department or the White House make Middle East policy? Was policy determined by domestic or foreign policy consider­ations? Did domestic lobbying by Zionists or by oil company partisans shape policy?

How did the president fit into this context? Some lauded President Truman as unquestionably committed to the creation of a Jewish state. Was he moved primarily by religious, humanitarian, and moral con­siderations that trumped other factors? Some argue that cultural, psychological, and religious factors cannot be ignored in shaping U.S. policy. On the other hand, works by Kenneth Bain, and more recently by Peter Hahn, Melvin Leffler, and John Judis, have, in different ways, demonstrated the extent of the president’s ambivalence, if not overt hos­tility, to the idea of a religious state. Without ignoring any of these factors, some historians also include the role of the Cold War as an influence on U.S. policy in Palestine.

Analysts such as J. C. Hurewitz, who was a consummate insider, recalled another important dimension of early policy formation in his study on Palestine. He reminds us that the bureaucracy dealing with the Palestine question in 1943 was very small, and few officials were involved. U.S. policymakers confirmed this when they faced the need to define U.S. policy. Within a very few years, however, the Palestine question assumed greater importance, as its connection with developments in the Second World War and the Holocaust, as well as its relation to the foundation of postwar U.S. oil interests in the Middle East, promoted more attention to the needs of policymaking in this area.

As the question of partition on Palestine assumed greater impor­tance in Washington, another theme dominated, as it still does. This was the claim that U.S. policymakers were faced with the choice of protect­ing U.S. oil interests or deferring to partisans of partition and, later, Jewish statehood. The question became: Oil or Israel? This formula erred, as I will explain in the following chapters. The choice facing policymakers was not oil versus Israel but rather oil and Israel. In the years that followed, it was oil and Israel versus reform and revolution in the Arab world.

The changing landscape of Middle East studies

The changing landscape of Middle East scholarship is apparent in the spate of publications, books, and articles appearing on U.S. foreign pol­icy in the Middle East. Collectively, they attest to the changing nature of research and the increasing availability of U.S. and international sources that contribute to a “transnational” and “multiarchival perspective. Particularly at this time of increased U.S. intervention in the Middle East, this expanded view and increased understanding by western, notably American, writers on the Middle East is something that Ussama Makdisi has eloquently pleaded for, particularly at a time of increased U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

The new scholarship promises no agreement but provides the seeds for a more informed debate, although thus far it has not altered conven­tional accounts of the Middle East or U.S. policy in the region. Nor has it fundamentally challenged the media, who often portray the Middle East as a danger zone whose complexity and controversy defies under­standing, as does its alleged predilection to violence, instability, and sectarian hatreds.

Those seeking to break with such caricatured depictions of states and societies in the Middle East discover that this is no easy matter. The familiar images of mad mullahs and jihad-prone fanatics allow for scant reflection on who or what is involved, let alone the conditions giving rise to the emergence of religious movements across the region. In such an intellectual environment, approaches that challenge long-standing narratives are often viewed as frankly subversive. As a result, they are marginalized in the media and often in academia, particularly in fields such as international relations that have long served to justify western supremacy.

In this context, recent scholarship may indeed make a difference. But examining previously neglected sources of newly declassified govern­ment documents, of whatever origin, is not enough. What is required is not only new data but new ways of thinking about what we know, or have chosen to ignore. Considering why certain questions related to policy remain unanswered, or unasked, involves asking who benefits from the existing production of knowledge, and whose interests are served by censoring those who challenge it?

Consider the impact of the invaluable studies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict produced by some of Israel’s new historians, such as Ilan Pappé, Benny Morris, and Avi Shlaim, and the journalist and historian Simha Flapan. Their work is based on the release of classified Israeli documents that challenge fundamental Israeli myths concerning the events of 1948 and Israel’s emergence as an independent state. Such works have confirmed the accounts of Palestinian historians such as Walid Khalidi, Nur-eldeen Masalha, and Rashid Khalidi and have been critically appraised by others, such as Joseph Massad, who have writ­ten about the events of 1948. Masalha has argued that the work of Israel’s “New Historians” is indicative of “a marked desire among the younger generation of Israeli authors and academics to unearth the truth concerning the events surrounding the Palestinian refugee exodus of 1948. This new tendency breaks the wall of silence, myth, secrecy and censorship instituted by the older generation of Zionist leadership.

In a penetrating essay on the new Israeli historiography, however, historian Joel Beinin points out that “much, even if not all the details of the information [Benny] Morris presents in The Birth of the Pales­tinian Refugee Problem and other works was always available in one form or another. It was actively rendered illegible in the Israeli historical narrative.”

This applies to the historical evidence concerning U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East as well. U.S. sources provide evidence that has long been available but in some instances has been all but invis­ible. Sources such as those included in the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), U.S. Presidential Papers, and the records of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, in conjunction with Israeli and Palestinian sources, strongly suggest the need to reconsider the dominant narratives of U.S. policy in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

How the present work differs

Building on the record of past scholarship and criticism of U.S. policy, this book differs from previous accounts in several significant respects. It situates the origin of the U.S. relationship with Israel in 1948 in the framework of postwar U.S. policy when petroleum dominated U.S. planning for the Middle East. Moreover, on the basis of U.S. sources, the present study maintains that the prevailing assumption with respect to U.S. policy toward Palestine, according to which U.S. officials feared that support for Zionism and partition of Palestine would undermine U.S. oil interests in the Arab world, proved to be a false assumption. The papers of Max Ball, director of the Oil and Gas Division of the Interior Department, and his exchanges with the representative of the Jewish Agency in the United States, Eliahu Epstein, confirm this fear, as do Israeli records of the same period. Ball operated outside the for­mal channels of policymakers, which does not negate the importance of his experience. It may explain, however, why that experience has been neglected in accounts of U.S. policy. Evidence of the encounter between Max Ball and Eliahu Epstein in 1948 forms the basis of the “oil connection” discussed in this book. The encounter opened doors and broke barriers that had long been consid­ered taboo. It revealed that major U.S. oil executives were pragmatic in their approach to the Palestine conflict and were prepared to engage with the Jewish Agency and later with Israeli officials, albeit operat­ing within existing constraints. The relationship between Max Ball, his son and associate, and his son-in-law Ray Kosloff, who became the first Israeli adviser on oil matters, yields additional information on how this former U.S. official assisted Israel in its fuel policy after his retirement.

Second, I emphasize the extent to which U.S. officials who were part of the formal policymaking framework understood the secular roots of the conflict in Palestine, its significance for Zionist support, and its traumatic impact on Palestinians. They understood that Zionist objec­tives were incompatible with Palestinian Arab self-determination and independence, even as they persisted in calling for compromise among the parties. Well informed about the consequences of the struggle over Palestine by U.S. consuls, officials in Washington, including the sec­retary of state, undersecretary, and their colleagues operating in the United Nations and in the specialized agencies dealing with Palestine and the Near and Middle East, were prepared to reconsider partition in favor of trusteeship. The record of their views on the Palestinian refugee problem and, specifically, the Israeli response and rejection of responsi­bility for its creation, led to major clashes between Washington and Tel Aviv after Israel’s emergence.

That record is known, but a more detailed examination of the evi­dence is required and is presented here. This examination complements some of the work of Israel’s “New Historians,” as well as Palestinian his­torians. More attention needs to be paid to the contributions of the U.S. consuls in Jerusalem, Thomas Wasson and Robert Macattee, as well as to the views of Gordon Merriam, who had broad experience including oil policy as well as working within the Policy Planning Staff, among other assignments; Mark Ethridge, the U.S. delegate to the Palestine Concili­ation Commission; and Philip Jessup in his role at the United Nations. Reconsidering their analyses as well as those of the far better known and more authoritative figures in the policy establishment—such as Robert McClintock, Loy Henderson, Robert Lovett, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson—provides a clearer view of the nature and evolution of U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. Third, the input of the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, the chief of naval operations, the secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) also provides insight into U.S. policy in the Middle East. Within months of Israel’s emergence, U.S. officials reassessed their views of the new state, in accord with presidential recognition of Israel. What fol­lowed was not only recognition of Israeli sovereignty but recognition of its strategic potential in Washington’s postwar policy in the Middle East, which was designed to exclude the USSR and to protect U.S. oil interests and allied defense arrangements. This assessment undermined Washington’s critical position on Israeli policy toward Palestinian ref­ugee repatriation and territorial expansion. These vital factors in the conflict between Israel-Palestine and the Arab world thereby assumed a subordinate position in light of the priorities defined by the JCS and officials in the Department of State.

Here, then, is the logic of U.S. oil policy, which was responsible for the increasing deference to Israeli policies whose purpose was to ensure that Israel turned toward the United States and away from the USSR. This objective, in turn, was allied to Washington’s principal goal in the Middle East—protection of its untrammeled access and control of oil.

These connections are crucial to understanding what many histo­rians have taken to be signs of the cautious and contrary character, or weakness, of U.S. policy, which appeared to waver between criticism of Israel and silence in the face of the very policies it criticized. In this book, I focus on the consequences of these policies, the network of rela­tions they promoted, their objectives, and their effect on Israel, Pales­tine, and the Arab world in 1949 and the years that followed.

Confronting this history is an exercise in uncovering the open secrets of past U.S. policy and in confronting the past, which remains embed­ded in the troubled present.

Excerpted from "Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East" by Irene Gendzier. Copyright (c) 2015 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

By Irene L. Gendzier

Irene L. Gendzier is professor emerita in the Department of Political Science at Boston University. She is also the author of Notes from the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945–1958 and Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study, and she is a coeditor, with Richard Falk and Robert Lifton, of Crimes of War: Iraq.

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