The Forgotten Diplomat Who Helped Lay the Groundwork for Israel’s Special Relationship with the U.S.

Feb. 22 2018

James G. McDonald came to the fledgling state of Israel in August 1948 as President Truman’s “special representative”; the next year, after official diplomatic relations were established, he became the first American ambassador to the Jewish state. Known to be sympathetic with Zionism even before his appointment, McDonald often communicated directly with Truman, bypassing the significantly less sympathetic bureaucrats of the State Department. Benny Morris reviews the recently published fourth volume of McDonald’s diaries, which deals with his interval in Israel:

Among the visitors [McDonald received] was Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born journalist and novelist, who had already lived in and reported from Palestine in the late 1920s and again in 1945. . . . McDonald characterized the meeting as “delightful and civilized.” Koestler avowed that his “chief interest in this country is its intellectual future,” by which he meant its cultural-ideological-political evolution, [about which he was less than optimistic]. . . . In his quiet way, McDonald sprang to the defense, arguing that Israel was “a pioneer country in which it was natural for a generation or two or three [that] the emphasis would be on material development and perhaps rather crude nationalism rather than on culture.” This had been the case with “pioneer America and pioneer South Africa.” Koestler “seemed inclined to agree.” Somewhat contradictorily, McDonald then added that Israel was sui generis, and that all comparisons were unreasonable. . . .

McDonald spent much of his two and a half years in the country meeting and entertaining people. But most of his time was devoted to matters of state and diplomacy—and this fascinating volume provides a wealth of information and insights about the forging of the American-Israeli “special relationship” and the foreign-policy deliberations inside the Truman administration about the Middle East. It also abounds with data and insights about young Israel’s (dour) relationship with the UN and its agencies and the failed secret peace talks between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Egypt, facilitated in part by the United States. . . .

McDonald was born in Ohio to parents who managed small hotels. After a brief academic career and working for a foreign-relations nonprofit, he was appointed the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees from Germany, where he helped Jews attempting to flee Nazism. In 1945 and 1946, he served on the Anglo-American Committee on Palestine. . . . His [subsequent] years in Tel Aviv were marked by continuous military, political, and diplomatic crises. “There is never a dull moment in Israel,” he noted in December 1949. “Moreover, the Jewish people in proportion to their numbers cause more stir in the world than any other folk.”

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More about: Arthur Koestler, Harry Truman, History & Ideas, Israeli history, U.S. Foreign policy, US-Israel relations

 

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war