President Trump and much of his Republican Party have denounced first-term Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as “anti-Semites” and for “hating Israel”—labels that Mr. Trump will likely apply to varying degree to Democrats during the 2020 campaign.
Both congresswomen endorse boycotts, divestment, and sanctions—as well as UN censures of Israel—to support Palestinian rights. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, among other interest groups, insists that BDS “intends to delegitimize” if not “destroy” Israel, and many politicians in Washington agree.
Yet interestingly, Omar and Tlaib are echoing the Republican Party’s support of censures and repeated threats to apply economic sanctions against the Jewish state from the days of President Dwight Eisenhower.
Eisenhower tightly controlled U.S. foreign policy and was pivotal to the UN Security Council’s censuring of Israel in November 1953, March 1955, and in January 1956. The reasons for each rebukes were similar, as they all involved what Eisenhower believed to be illegal aggression and violence against Israel’s Arab neighbors.
The first Arab-Israeli war had ended in 1949 along shaky armistice lines. The censures thereafter enacted were seeded by Israeli attacks on Jordan, Egypt and Syria. The U.S. threatened sanctions if the aggression continued. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned Israel’s ambassador, Abba Eban, against any further attacks while Eisenhower spoke darkly of Israeli “expansion.” He was supported in his position by the UK governments of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.
The first U.S.-backed censure in October 1953 followed an Israeli Defense Force attack on the village of Qibya, near Jerusalem on the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. “They shot every man, woman and child they could find,” reported Time magazine, “then turned their fire on the cattle,” while dynamiting houses, a school, and a mosque. Sixty-nine Palestinians lay dead, with no Israeli casualties. Prime Minister Churchill was repulsed by the atrocity and supported Eisenhower’s decision.
In July 1954, a self-described Israeli “terror unit” embedded in Egypt’s still-vibrant Jewish community bombed two U.S. consulate libraries as well as British civilian targets in Cairo and Alexandria. Israel’s goal was to destabilize Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government and to pin blame for the attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood. After authorities hanged two of the terrorists in January 1955, Israel retaliated by staging an IDF night attack on Gaza that killed 38 Egyptian soldiers.
The Americans didn’t believe Tel Aviv’s cries of self-defense. Following the incidents in Egypt, the U.S. again led a UN censure of Israel and warned that sanctions were imminent. Subsequently, Egyptian commandos—who had been busy skirmishing with British troops in the Suez Canal zone—responded with their own systematic raids.
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In December 1955, an IDF assault against Syrian positions caused Eisenhower and Dulles to react swiftly with another censure resolution. At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge charged that “previous representations by the Council and the United States government have failed to halt the mass of Israeli attacks on its Arab neighbors and the whole Palestine situation has deteriorated as a result.”
Abba Eban insisted that Israel was retaliating, and he asserted that terrorists had killed or wounded 880 Israelis since 1951. The Americans were unpersuaded, and for good reason. The body count that resulted from Israel’s actions included “upward of 2,700 Arab infiltrators, and perhaps as many as 5,000, [who] were killed by the IDF, police, and civilians along Israel’s borders between 1949 and 1956,” writes the eminent Israeli historian Benny Morris, “the vast majority of those killed were unarmed.” He describes the dead as shepherds, farmers, Bedouins, and refugees trying to return to their villages. Within Israel, meanwhile, Palestinians lived under martial law — as they would until 1966.
Moscow then raised the stakes in the Middle East by delivering large numbers of arms during the period 1955-1956 with other, but fewer, arms being transported to Syria. Israel felt threatened by Moscow’s actions, although Dulles concluded that it was “difficult to be critical” of the Egyptians for buying the arms, which (as he said), “they sincerely need for defense.” He hadn’t imagined that Egypt would also need to defend itself against Britain and France.
Nasser’s takeover of the Suez Canal Company in July 1956 was just one of the reasons why Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt three months later. Prime Minister Eden, who had finally pulled his soldiers, ships, and planes out of Suez, was determined to “teach Nasser a lesson.” France, in turn, expected that ousting Nasser would end Algeria’s war of independence which Nasser was aiding with money, small arms, and propaganda.
Crushing Algeria’s rebels was an Israeli priority too, in addition to halting the border violence with Egypt and the flow of Soviet-supplied weapons into the port of Alexandria.
Unlike Arabs, who composed nine-tenths of Algeria’s population, Jews in Algeria were French citizens. The Israelis armed and trained Jewish-Algerian militias, shared intelligence with French officials, and helped break codes between the rebels and Cairo. Furthermore, Israel received its jets, tanks, artillery, ammunition, and napalm-drop equipment from France.
Eisenhower wanted the United States to remain neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict and he therefore pledged that America would side with the victim of aggression should all-out war erupt.
Leaders of the three nations that invaded Egypt, starting on October 29, didn’t believe him: Britain presumed a special relationship; France concluded he was bluffing; and the Israelis expected Eisenhower to flinch because he faced reelection on November 6. Surely he’d succumb to pressure from Jewish voters. Instead he cut off oil and loans to Britain, among other measures which torpedoed the offensive. In tandem with Dulles, he compelled Anglo-French forces to leave Egypt in December.
Despite U.S. protests, however, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared that Israel had overriding defense priorities and refused to withdraw IDF units from Egyptian terrain.
A curious leak then occurred in Washington on February 17, 1957. It concerned classified details about the war of 1948-1949. At that time, a defense pact still existed between Britain and Egypt. Once Israeli forces had pushed into Egypt in late 1948, London had issued a secret ultimatum for Israel to retreat. Ben-Gurion had regarded it as “a declaration of war.”
The ultimatum had been handed to him on New Years’ Eve 1948-49 by the U.S. ambassador to Israel, James MacDonald, as instructed by Harry Truman. Moreover, Truman, on December 30, had just issued America’s own demand that Israel pull out. Israel did so within a week.
Nearly eight years later, Eisenhower used this incident to show his country that Washington, under the Democrats, had already acted tough indeed toward Ben-Gurion and Israel.
Then came Eisenhower’s promise to go beyond mere UN censures.
On February 20, 1957, President Eisenhower spoke from the Oval Office about U.S. difficulties with Israel. “Should a nation,” he asked, “which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal?” He was set to push UN sanctions and to halt private U.S. business dealings with Israel, which included the purchase of Israeli bonds. In response, on March 1, Foreign Minister Golda Meir announced a prompt withdrawal from all Egyptian territory.
There’s a myth that Eisenhower lamented his decisions during the Suez invasion and its aftermath. Yet as a soldier and a president, Eisenhower was known for not second-guessing himself. His apparent remark in 1965 that “I never should have pressured Israel to evacuate the Sinai” was made to a Republican Party stalwart who was also chairman of the United Jewish Appeal. And any regrets about Suez that former vice president Richard Nixon may have heard around the same time are best explained by the fact that Eisenhower was always a minimalist. A decade after Suez, Eisenhower would have seen 1956–1957 as the dreadful moment when the United States got irrevocably entangled in the Middle East.
The last time that Washington placed “the Palestine Question” on the UN Security Council agenda in order to censure Israel was in 1966. On November 12, three Israeli soldiers were killed by a mine along the Jordanian-controlled West Bank border, and three days later Israel launched the largest military operation since Suez. “In hitting Jordan,” concluded President Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, Walt Rostow, “the Israelis have done a great deal of damage to our interests and to their own: They’ve wrecked a good system of tacit cooperation.” The Americans again weighed sanctions, yet “antisemitism” and “delegitimization” were no more to be found among Rostow and his NSC staff than under Eisenhower and Dulles.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli war would alter the landscape. The result is today’s predicament: first, a half-century long military occupation with conditions in the West Bank that South African Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu describes as “worse than apartheid”; second, Israel’s recurring violations of international law, and of seven decades of U.S. policy, as its settlements expand into occupied territory; and, third, another open-ended body count of Palestinians. Once more, “the vast majority of those killed [have been] unarmed,” such as the 214 shot within Gaza by Israeli snipers throughout the 2018 protests.
In the absence of U.S. leadership, pressures for sanctioning Israel are this time coming from below, as from the two Congresswomen. Like other proponents of BDS and censures, they claim to be inspired by U.S. civil rights campaigns of the 1960s as well as by the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. If they cared to, they could also cite inspiration from Eisenhower and his fellow Republicans when they argue for more even-handed policies on Israel.
Derek Leebaert is an American technology executive, a military historian, and a co-founder of the National Museum of the United States Army. His most recent book, Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945–1957, was released in 2018.