A closer look at the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the US-Israeli relationship, however, tells a different story. The US was never an honest broker for peace in the region, despite the many diplomatic efforts it undertook in past decades. Israel has always been a strategic asset for the US, yet, at the same time, America has monopolized peace diplomacy in the Middle East since the 1970s. This paradoxical position inhibited the White House from ever acting as an unbiased mediator for peace and has repeatedly skewed US decision-making in favor of Israel. In addition, the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, especially in electoral politics, has played a crucial role in nurturing American favoritism of Israel at the expense of a balanced agenda toward a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
The Balfour Declaration in 1917 was the culmination of fervent Zionist lobbying to enlist the support of Great Britain, the world’s leading power at the time. However, after the Second World War, the US emerged as the world’s preeminent power. The horrors of the war, especially the Holocaust, brought the Jewish question to the forefront of American domestic and foreign policies. The Jewish Agency exploited this shift in American national sentiment and dramatic change in the international balance of power, and was able to secure American support for its quest to establish a “Jewish state” in Palestine. Key to this effort were two avid Zionists, Clark Clifford and David Niles, both counsels to US President Harry S. Truman (1945-53). Successfully steered by his advisers, and with the Jewish vote on his mind, Truman refused to place Palestine under UN trusteeship at the end of the British mandate. The US was the first country to recognize the government of Israel as the de facto authority of the state in May 1948. The White House thwarted a UN peace plan and allowed the nascent Israeli state to grab more land and displace thousands of Palestinians.
As William B. Quandt described, Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) shifted his position on whether to back Israel in the final days before the 1967 war, going from a “red light to yellow, but not quite green.” For the Israeli Cabinet, that was enough American permission to launch a military campaign, in which Israel occupied Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.
From 1970 onwards, US national security adviser (and later secretary of state) Henry Kissinger refused many overtures from Egypt’s Anwar Al-Sadat, who sought a peaceful settlement with Israel over Sinai. In 1973, another Arab-Israeli war broke out. But, unlike 1967, Israel was not able to defeat the Arabs in a matter of days; on the contrary, Syrian and Egyptian forces drove deep into Israeli-occupied territories. Richard Nixon (1969-74) initiated Operation Nickel Grass, shipping thousands of tons of American equipment and ammunition to help Israel turn the tide of the war. Kissinger, in fact, refused all international calls for a cease-fire until after Israel, bolstered by American arms shipments, was able to reverse all Syrian and Egyptian gains.
In the months that followed the 1973 war, Kissinger, with his shrewd diplomatic machinations, sidestepped the Soviets and guaranteed an American monopoly of peace diplomacy in the Middle East for decades to come. This novel American position, however, was coupled with a set of “secret” assurances that gave Israel a stake in the making of US peace diplomacy in the region. Following the second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement in 1975, simply known as Sinai II, the US pledged to guarantee Israeli military superiority over all the surrounding Arab countries combined. More importantly, in a secret memorandum of agreement, Kissinger committed current and future US administrations to coordinate fully with Israel on formulating American strategy for peace diplomacy in the region, and to refrain from putting forward any proposals without first discussing them with the Israelis. This, in effect, gave Israel a direct stake in the making of American policy in the Middle East.
Influence of pro-Israel lobby in Washington has made it impossible for America to have a balanced approach as mediator.
When Jimmy Carter (1977-81) tried to move the peace process forward on all fronts, he immediately came under severe attack from the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and the Israeli government threatened to publish the “secret” Sinai II side agreements. Carter dropped his initial agenda and brokered the Camp David Accords. Contrary to Carter, Ronald Reagan (1981-89) had little interest in the peace process. His secretary of state, Alexander Haig, gave a “yellow light” to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which brought untold death and destruction. An American attempt to broker an Israeli-Lebanese peace accord, with Ariel Sharon’s tanks roaming the streets of Beirut, failed miserably.
American peace diplomacy in the region reached its apex under the Clinton administration (1993-2001), with peace accords reached between Israel on the one hand, and Jordan and the PLO on the other. Clinton came closer than any president to achieving a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement, but failed to do so. In this hopeful decade, however, a Republican Congress passed the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act. In the decades that followed, the Oslo process hit a wall and US peace initiatives in the region lost steam, but every American president and presidential candidate, Republican and Democrat, went before AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) during the election campaign and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Like his predecessors, Trump made the same pledge. He, however, lived up to his promise.
We are still waiting for Trump’s own version of a peace initiative. But, judging by his first year in office, one can hardly look forward to it.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.