Upon the 40th anniversary of Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s death, Israeli and American policy-makers should study the 1948 legacy of Israel’s Founding Father: Defiance of disproportionate US pressure forged Israel into a national security producer rather than a national security consumer, catapulted the Jewish state into the most productive US strategic ally, enhanced the long-term US-Israel mutually-beneficial ties (following short-term tension), and advanced the national security of both the US and Israel.
On May 29, 1949, toward the end of Israel’s War of Independence, which consumed 6,000 Israeli lives (1% of the population!), the US Ambassador to Israel, James McDonald, delivered a scolding message from President Truman to Prime Minister Ben Gurion. According to McDonald, Truman “interpreted Israel’s attitude [rejecting the land-for-peace principle; annexing West Jerusalem; refusing to absorb Arab refugees; pro-actively soliciting a massive Jewish ingathering] as dangerous to peace and as indicating disregard of the UN General Assembly resolutions of November 29, 1947 [the partition plan] and December 11, 1948 [refugees and internationalization of Jerusalem], reaffirming insistence that territorial compensation should be made [by Israel] for territory taken in excess of November 29 [40% beyond the partition plan!], and that tangible refugee concessions should be made [by Israel] now as essential, preliminary to any prospect for general settlement. The operative part of the note was the implied threat that the US would reconsider its attitude toward Israel (My Mission in Israel 1948-1951, James McDonald, Simon and Schuster, 1951, p 181).”
Ben Gurion’s response – with a population of 650,000 Jews, a $1 billion GDP and a slim military force in 1949, compared with 6.3 million Jews, a $260 billion GDP and one of the world’s finest military forces in 2013 – was resolute: “[Truman’s] note was unrealistic and unjust. It ignored the facts that the partition resolution was no longer applicable since its basic conditions had been destroyed by Arab aggression which the Jews successfully resisted…. To whom should we turn if Israel were again attacked? Would the US send arms or troops? The United States is a powerful country; Israel is a small and a weak one. We can be crushed, but we will not commit suicide (ibid, p. 182).”
“Two UN Security Council resolutions passed [with US support] have implicitly threatened sanctions if Israeli troops were not withdrawn [from the ‘occupied Negev’]….” Ben Gurion reacted defiantly: “Israel has been attacked by six Arab States. As a small country, Israel must reserve the right of self-defense even if it goes down fighting (ibid, p. 121)…. As Ben Gurion once put it to me, ‘What Israel has won on the battlefield, it is determined not to yield at the [UN Security] Council table (ibid, p. 86).’”
As a result of Ben Gurion’s determined stance, “there was apparently indecision and much heart-searching in Washington…. Our [responding] note abandoned completely the stern tone of its predecessor…. Fists and knuckles were unclenched…. The crisis was past. The next few months marked a steady retreat from the intransigence of the United States’ May note….Washington ceased to lay down the law to Tel Aviv (ibid, p. 184).”
On the eve of the declaration of independence, General George Marshall, Second World War hero and Secretary of State, who was then the most charismatic office-holder in the US, sent Ben Gurion a brutal ultimatum, demanding the postponement of the declaration of independence and acceptance of a UN Trusteeship. Marshall, along with Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, the CIA and the top Foggy Bottom bureaucrats imposed a regional military embargo, while Britain supplied arms to Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. They contended that a declaration of independence would turn the oil-producing Arab countries against the US, at a time when the threat of a Third World War (USSR vs USA) was hovering, which could force the US to fight an oil-starved war. They threatened that Ben Gurion’s unilateral declaration of independence would trigger a war, which could doom the Jewish people to a second Holocaust in less than ten years, since the US would not provide any assistance to the Jewish state. They contemplated an expanded embargo – unilaterally or multilaterally – should Ben Gurion ignore the ultimatum.
Ben Gurion did not blink. “[Ben Gurion] added that much as Israel desired friendship with the US, there were limits beyond which it could not go…. Ben Gurion warned President Truman and the Department of State, through me, that they would be gravely mistaken if they assumed that the threat, or even the use of UN sanctions, would force Israel to yield on issues considered vital to its independence and security…. [He] left no doubt that he was determined to resist, at whatever cost, ‘unjust and impossible demands.’ On these he could not compromise (ibid 49-50).”
Ben Gurion’s tenacity was vindicated when Israel was admitted to the UN, despite its rejection of the land-for-peace, Jerusalem and refugees demands, “evidence of the growth of respect for Israel (ibid, p. 110).” Moreover, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who was a delegate to the UN in 1949, admitted that the partition plan and the anti-Israel “Bernadotte UN Plan” were not adequate and that the US underestimated the Jewish muscle and determination. General Omar Bradley, the Chairman of the Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff, proposed to consider Israel as a major ally of the US.
Ben Gurion was aware that fending off pressure constituted an integral part of Jewish history, a prerequisite for survival and long-term growth, militarily, diplomatically and economically. On the other hand, succumbing to pressure intensifies further pressure, threatening to transform Israel from a unique strategic asset to a liability. On a rainy day, the US would rather have a defiant – and not a vacillating – ally.