The U.S. State Department was determined to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, opposing both partition and recognition. After it failed, diplomats spent decades trying to prevent the development of an alliance. Before the Trump administration, much of its effort was devoted to forcing Israel back to the 1949 armistice lines. Now, State wants to return to the partition idea, fantasizing about creating a Palestinian state that it knows will seek to replace the Jewish state.
Initially, the State Department’s policy towards the Zionists was influenced by the British Foreign Office’s hostility. Like the FO, State was inhabited by anti-Semites whose animus towards the Jews shaped their views. They were complemented by Arabists who saw a Jewish state as an impediment to their vision of the Middle East and, most importantly, access to oil. For both, Israel has always been the root of most evil in the region.
The anti-Semites were mostly gone by the time George Schultz finished his term as Secretary of State in 1989, but the Arabists and their influence have remained, though it has waxed and waned depending on the occupant of the Oval Office. They were dominant in the Obama administration and silenced in former President Donald Trump’s, and now have returned with a vengeance under President Joe Biden.
The most fundamental error in Arabist thinking is that U.S.-Arab relations would suffer the closer America became with Israel. That did not happen because most Arab nations want and need good relations with the United States, regardless of our ties with Israel.
Since 1967, State has been searching for a formula to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. It has failed because it underestimates Arab anti-Semitism and intransigence, refuses to acknowledge the role of radical Islam and believes that Israel must be coerced to accept American terms.
Starting with President Jimmy Carter, the Arabists became obsessed with a two-state solution and maintained the fiction that Arab leaders shared their fixation. They knew better because those leaders demonstrated their disinterest in the Palestinians by word and deed, starting in 1948 when the Arab states invaded Palestine to divvy it among themselves, not creating a Palestinian state. Egypt and Jordan occupied Gaza and the West Bank, respectively, and had 19 years to grant the Palestinians independence and never considered it (and the Palestinians and the international community never demanded it).
Daniel Pipes recently wrote about specific instances where Arab leaders made their true opinions known, as in the case of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, who told a CIA operative that he considered the Palestinian issue “unimportant.” Even Carter admitted, “I have never met an Arab leader that in private professed the desire for an independent Palestinian state.” Egyptian President Anwar Sadat opposed the creation of a Palestinian state and made peace with Israel without getting any concessions for the Palestinians.
Yes, Arab leaders would rant about Israel, but after getting it out of their system, they would get down to what they really cared about, which was typically the real threats they saw to their regimes: Iran and their fellow Arabs.
The State Department was aware of these views and ignored them. Former Secretary of State John Kerry spoke for many of the self-deluding Arabists when he insisted Arab states would not make peace with Israel unless the Palestinian issue was resolved years after Egypt and Jordan had signed treaties. (The 2020 Abraham Accords further proved they were out of touch with Middle East reality.)
After years of it being unthinkable, presidents, starting with Bill Clinton’s appointment of Martin Indyk, appointed Jews to serve as ambassadors to Israel (five of the last seven). Most, however, either started as Arabists or adopted their worldview. The pull of the Messianic possibility of being THE ONE to negotiate lasting peace draws them like a moth to a flame.
The good news from Israel’s perspective is that ambassadors’ influence is limited because the most important bilateral relations are conducted between the prime minister and president.
Still, U.S. ambassadors have often managed to offend their hosts, as the current ambassador Thomas Nides did when he spoke out against the proposed judicial reforms. Of course, he was doing his job in reflecting the administration position, which was made clear by Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Meanwhile, having lost nearly every battle since partition, the Arabists remain unbowed. Their Alamo may now be Jerusalem. Even after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the embassy, the State Department has remained determined to undermine the decision and reignite Palestinian hopes to establish a capital there as part of the mythical two-state solution. This fantasy should have been extinguished.
To that end, State wants to reopen the Jerusalem consulate—the de facto U.S. embassy to “Palestine”—rather than establish one where it belongs in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. Unable to overcome Israeli objections, State has made an end-run by returning to the pre-Trump policy of having the official responsible for Palestinian affairs report directly to State rather than the ambassador to Israel. Though it is not called a consulate, the Office of Palestinian Affairs conducts consular activities in the exact location of the old consulate.
Nides announced plans to leave his post and, reflecting on his two years of service, what was most striking was his statement: “I probably spend more time on Palestinian-related issues. I would say 60 percent of my time is spent on Palestinian [issues].” This is the ambassador to Israel.
Given his focus, it is less surprising that even the embassy caters more to Palestinians than Israelis. If you go to its website and look at the Business, Education & Culture, News & Events and Embassy pages, you will find the pages written in English with a translation only in Arabic. In recent years, the Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission positions were listed as speaking multiple languages other than Hebrew.
State fought tooth and nail to prevent American citizens born in Jerusalem from listing Israel as their country of birth even after Congress passed a law requiring it to do so. The Obama administration took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that only the president could recognize foreign governments. Unfortunately for State, this meant that Trump could decide to issue passports with Israel as the place of birth, and in 2020, the man whose case went to the Supreme Court, Menachem Zivotofsky, received the first such passport.
However, even Trump’s State Department would not fully recognize that Jerusalem is in Israel. Citizens born in Jerusalem can also list the city as their place of birth, which is also the designation for citizens who do not specify their place of birth. Similarly, if you go to the State Department’s appointment system, you are asked to select a Consulate/Embassy Country, and one of the choices is Jerusalem. Thus, State maintains the illusion that Jerusalem is floating in the ether, unattached to any country.
Amazingly, even after 75 years, the State Department hasn’t completely abandoned the fight against the Jewish state.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby,” “Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”