Middle East History: It Happened in January; Israel Seeks "Neutrality" between U.S., Soviet Union

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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN JANUARY; Israel Seeks "Neutrality" Between U.S., Soviet Union

By Donald Neff

It was 46 years ago, on Jan. 13, 1949, that The New York Times reported Israel sought to steer a neutral course between the United States and the Soviet Union. Correspondent Anne O'Hare McCormick reported from Jerusalem that "It is true that Israel cherishes the ideal of remaining `neutral' between the United States and the Soviet Union, constantly referred to as `our two powerful friends...'" 1

The policy's name in Hebrew was eehizdahut, "non-identification." Although the Cold War was in full force at the time, Israel hoped to remain friendly with both superpowers because both had assets that Israel needed--money, people and weapons. Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett said: "Israel will in no case become identified with one of the great blocs of the world as against the other." 2

This was not good news for the U.S. and its allies. Although Israel by itself was not a significant military factor in the Cold War, its willingness to equate the Soviet Union as the moral equivalent of the United States was a disturbing message to Western Cold Warriors. Their primary concern at the time was to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East, which had been a Western preserve since World War I.

Yet Israel had compelling reasons to embrace the Eastern bloc, as David Ben-Gurion made clear when he formed his first government on March 10, 1949. He informed Israel's legislature that his government would pursue "a foreign policy aimed at achieving friendship and cooperation with the United States and the Soviet Union." 3 He added that the Soviet Union was a "great and growing world power, controlling a number of states not hostile to us...and in it and its satellites lives the second part of the Jewish people." 4

That was one of the cores of the matter for Israel--some two million Jews living in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. In the first three years after World War II the Soviet Union allowed 200,000 Jews who had fled Poland for safety in the Soviet Union to emigrate to the West and Palestine. 5

Israel's interests in the United States were similarly compelling. The United States had the wealth and a generous Jewish community to help finance the fledgling state. Israel's total exports in 1949 were only $40 million, whereas contributions from Jewish Americans accounted for $100 million. 6

But of more immediate importance were weapons. And it was here that the Soviet Union played a paramount role at this time. Moscow had allowed Czechoslovakia to become Israel's major arms supplier in 1948. In that capacity, Czechoslovakia had provided Israel with all the Messerschmitts and Spitfires that formed its new air force, as well as other weapons and the training of 5,000 of its military personnel by the fall of 1948. And it remained Israel's major arms supplier in 1949. 7

The significance of the Czech connection to Israel rested on the fact that the U.S. had imposed an arms embargo on the area in 1947. Despite unrelenting pressure from Israel's supporters, the Truman administration continued to observe the embargo in 1949, as did subsequent administrations for more than a decade.

Keeping Russia out of the Middle East was one of Washington's major goals.

The steadfastness of the Truman administration on the arms issue had less to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict than with the Soviet Union. Keeping Russia out of the Middle East was one of Washington's major goals. Before the Palestine problem grew acute after the end of World War II, the Middle East had been "virtually clean" of Soviet influence, in the words of one British general. But since then it had made some modest gains in Israel because of Moscow's support of partition, its quick recognition of the Jewish state, its decision to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel and its secret supply to Israel of weapons via Czechoslovakia during the fighting. …