American-Israeli Relations Need Historical Context

The history of Israel is not that of a united people fighting for survival Americans imagine it to be.

And where is the great artist who will paint Ben Gurion’s face as he gave the order, and the face of Yitzchak Sadeh and the face of Galili and the face of the man who fired the artillery and the faces of the Palmach men and women who danced and sang in the cars returning from the slaughter, as they drove down to Ben Yehuda and Allenby streets in Tel Aviv.

These words, written by Dr Israel Eldad in The First Tithe (2008), reflect on a particularly dark episode in the history of the State of Israel — one about which many Jews are ignorant and others have tried hard to forget. It happened on June 22, 1948 off the coast of Tel Aviv. Fighters of the Irgun, the Jewish underground in Mandate Palestine then led by future premier Menachem Begin, had beached a cargo ship, the Altalena, on a sandbar. The Atlalena had left France with desperately needed weapons and equipment for use in Israel’s month-old War of Independence — some 5,000 rifles, 300 light machine guns and millions of rounds of ammunition.

As chronicled by Thomas G. Mitchell in Likud Leaders: the Lives and Careers of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon (2015), as Begin and his aides reached the beach and sought to help volunteers unload the cargo, he was ordered to surrender and turn all weapons over to the authority of the Palmach under the ultimate control of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. After a brief standoff and with its surrender demand rebuffed, a Palmach detachment under the command of future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin opened fire and killed sixteen Irgun members.

Many decades later, and a few years before his assassination, Rabin called a fellow member of the Israeli parliament a fascist. That member, and others, would stoically respond that, names aside, at least they never killed Jews. Although not conclusively proven, circumstantial evidence exists to link Ben-Gurion’s cabinet decision to sink the Altalena with a desire to eliminate Begin himself were he on board.

Israelis watch the ship Altalena on fire after it was shelled near Tel Aviv, June 22, 1948
Israelis watch the ship Altalena on fire after it was shelled near Tel Aviv, June 22, 1948 (GPO)

Far from the idyllic image of a united people fighting for survival that has come down through the generations, the history of modern Israel has more often than not been one of betrayal and division.

The Altalena episode capped off a years-long quasi-civil war between factions loyal to Ben-Gurion and his Labor Zionist vision of an agrarian, socialist Jewish state and the market, middle-class nationalist Zionism of Begin and the Revisionists. As Israel was fighting against the Palestinian Arabs and surrounding Arab states for its existence, it was also fighting ideological rearguard actions akin to the Irish Civil War in the aftermath of the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The Labor-Revisionist rivalry extended to almost the start of the Zionist movement, culminating with Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s expulsion from the Zionist Congress and de facto blacklisting by Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and the Labor Zionist leadership.

During the British Mandate, leading lights of the Palmach, Ben-Gurion’s socialist, kibbutznik paramilitary force, hunted down members of the Irgun and its sister organizations on behalf of the British, knowing that the price of membership was death by hanging. During the so-called “Season” in the early 1940s, dozens of Revisionist underground fighters were captured by Palmach volunteers and turned over for execution. Some of these volunteers included future leaders in the Israeli arts, politics and sciences.

Israel’s victory against its Arab adversaries in the War of Independence and 1949 ceasefire did not just restore Jewish sovereignty to parts of the historic Land of Israel; it also brought into a being what was effectively a one-party socialist state. Ben-Gurion and his Labor Zionist movement, which would morph into the Mapai party and the political “Alignment” of left and far-left factions in the Israeli parliament, proceeded to rule Israel for thirty years without serious political opposition.

The desire to destroy rightist adversaries and foment ideological cohesion was so extreme that Ben-Gurion refused repeated requests to have Jabotinsky, buried in New York after dying of a heart attack in 1940, reinterred in Israel. New immigrants, with the particularly notorious example of Yemenite Jews, were compelled to join the Labor Zionist-aligned Histadrut workers union as a condition to gain employment in certain professions. Children were taken from their parents who were considered culturally backward and sent to semi-official reeducation camps. The contributions of Revisionist-aligned fighting organizations in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, including those that fought ferociously during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, were discounted in academic and official government literature.

Despite the trappings of democratic processes and the existence of an official opposition (with Begin as its indefatigable face), Israel was never unified as to its basic identity and existed for many years as a patently anti-democratic (albeit anti-Soviet and pro-Western) state.

For decades after the Altalena massacre, Israel’s factions continued to be at each other’s throats. When Begin and his Likud — which now governs Israel under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu — first came to power in 1977 and ended Labor Zionism’s political monopoly, it was on a wave of resentment. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, expelled from Arab countries and resettled in Israel, felt themselves cut out by the leftist Ashkenazi Jewish establishment that dominated the Alignment.

When the First Intifada and economic stagnation saw Likud‘s Yitzhak Shamir replaced by Rabin’s Labor, the same factional divides persisted. Nationalists who balked at Rabin’s proposed concessions to the Palestinian Arabs were pelted with rocks, spat upon and called enemies of peace. Leftists from the cities and the kibbutzim who supported sweeping territorial giveaways were labeled Nazis and terror supporters.

Rethinking American-Israeli relations

Given how central Israel is in the foreign policy consciousness of many Americans and the significance placed on it by the country’s political class (rarely is a statement about the Middle East uttered without mentioning “our ally Israel”), it is amazing how little Americans actually know about Israel’s exceedingly complicated and politically incorrect history.

Whatever disagreements Americans have about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian Arabs, they recognize it as a legitimate entity because it has a functioning, pluralistic and representative democracy with equality under the law. It would surely behoove the American public, including its most fundamentally pro-Israel segments, to learn that Israel was a one-party quasi-authoritarian socialist state for almost thirty years with a Potemkin village approach to civil society.

Of course, Israel has progressed and evolved, in the face of economic crises (a currency collapse and the delegitimization of the agrarian-socialist model in the mid-1980s) and multiple wars against its aggressive neighbors, into a more modern and cosmopolitan state. But deep factionalism and profound resentments, including the wounds of yesteryear’s brotherly battles, still exist.

Most Americans, including many politicians, know next to nothing about the complexities and internal struggles of the real Israel. This is an unhealthy dynamic for both parties and leads to an occasional misalignment of interests. No relationship can really succeed if one side (save for a few aficionados) knows so little about the other and allows itself to be led by manufactured images.

American president Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Maryland, September 17, 1978
American president Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Maryland, September 17, 1978 (White House)

The partnership between Israel and the United States, far from being a reality from time immemorial, is actually a very recent phenomenon. Israel and the Soviet Union actively colluded in the aftermath of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 on the Partition of the Palestine Mandate when the Truman Administration had second thoughts. France was Israel’s chief military supplier through the 1960s and actively assisted Jerusalem with its nuclear program. Only after the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel’s Arab neighbors entered the Soviet camp, did America become the Jewish state’s primary Western patron. (Read my previous article on how the United States thwarted Israel’s 1956 Sinai campaign against Egypt.)

Taking Israel’s deep divisions and ideological schisms into account is essential to reshaping American-Israeli relations.

Until Israel definitively comes to terms with what it is and wants, there is no reason for Washington to elevate it to sanctified status. Israel faces profound challenges which it ought to confront alone, including most urgently whether it is prepared to reject the farcical land-for-peace two-state solution model of resolving its conflict with the Palestinian Arabs and proceed with the unilateral annexation of key areas under its security control.

Israel also has to formulate its long-term security posture vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors, create a stable balance between its parliament and judiciary and resolve cathartic intra-religious schisms. And this before getting to the Iranian regional threat which the Israeli consensus deems existential.

While Israel has no choice but to contend with the Middle East’s many minefields, America’s basic interest is to find a workable exit from the region. This means (or should mean) rapprochement with Iran, an independent Kurdistan, a partitioned Iraq and a coalition of Sunni Arab states no longer taking America’s security guarantees for granted.

The United States does not have the structural prerequisites or geopolitical rationale to engage in the Middle East as intimately as it did during the length of the Cold War. Here Jerusalem and Washington part ways and to shrug this divergence off with a wink to Israel’s thriving democracy does no one any favors. If America is to remain as intimately connected to Israel as is presently the case, it is necessary for Americans to be told about Israel’s low points as well as its many achievements, how the two countries’ interests will not always overlap and how the benefits of regional exit for the United States may occasionally override diplomatic and security commitments to a close ally.