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  Opinion   Columnists  10 Jan 2024  Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Why US, Saudis aren’t in a hurry to halt war in Gaza

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Why US, Saudis aren’t in a hurry to halt war in Gaza

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Jan 11, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jan 11, 2024, 12:00 am IST

If the major powers failed the Palestinians, their own race brothers were not very helpful either

In 1945, however, Ibn Saud was at least formally the supplicant. As the representative of the Palestinian-Arabs he did not deny that Europe’s Jews had been cruelly treated. But he argued that innocent Palestinians should not have to pay for Germany’s crimes. (File Image AFP)
 In 1945, however, Ibn Saud was at least formally the supplicant. As the representative of the Palestinian-Arabs he did not deny that Europe’s Jews had been cruelly treated. But he argued that innocent Palestinians should not have to pay for Germany’s crimes. (File Image AFP)

Uncommitted readers of this newspaper who wonder why the United States of America does not put its foot down and stop the carnage in Gaza should remember the American phrase “All politics is local”. It explains why Washington won’t displease American Jewry.

From the Vatican to the Kremlin, from the White House to Capitol Hill, the world’s movers and shakers view them as a force to be reckoned with. They can influence events, define and achieve important goals, reward friends and punish enemies. When, in the 1990s, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao sought to improve India’s ties with Israel, he tasked a senior diplomat, Lalit Mansingh, in India’s Washington embassy, to explore openings. Mr Mansingh approached the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish community’s main foreign-policy lobbying organisation, which has 55,000 members, a staff of 150 and a $15 million budget. In May 1991, Washington brokered a one-day ceasefire in the bloody Ethiopian civil war only so that Israeli aircraft could evacuate 20,000 Jewish tribespeople in an unprecedented 24-hour airlift.

Mr Mansingh was only following the lead of Presidents and Prime Ministers visiting the United Nations or passing through to Washington for whom the New York offices of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League are obligatory stops.

More than a dozen foreign embassies assign diplomats to a semi-official “Jewish desk” to maintain friendly ties with American Jews. Evidence of the community’s clout is the $3 billion Israel enjoys annually as US aid. Fully one-fifth of America’s foreign aid has gone to a nation of barely five million people, just one-tenth of one per cent of the world’s population. Such is the power of the Jewish lobby.

This US-Jewish entente seemed unlikely on February 14, 1945 --Valentine’s Day -- when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal straight from the Yalta Conference with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill to meet Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud who had driven out his family’s hereditary enemies, united the Arabian peninsula, and established himself as the first monarch of the only country that takes its name from its royal family. The discovery of oil had made Saudi Arabia fabulously wealthy. King Abdul Aziz -- better known as Ibn Saud -- and FDR met on board the naval cruiser USS Quincy.

Ibn Saud was an absolute monarch supported by the fanatical Wahhabi clergy. He had never been to sea or travelled outside the Arabian peninsula, except once briefly to Basra. A warrior with little experience of international diplomacy, he had sent two sons, Khaled and Faisal, both later Kings of Saudi Arabia, to America to meet FDR, tour America, and report back that the US was the world’s richest and most powerful nation. He was also a philosopher: when a European visitor expressed surprise at a beggar addressing Ibn Saud as “O Brother!” the King retorted that no man could insult another by calling him his mother’s son.

Looking ahead, Ibn Saud would not have been surprised to learn that a descendant of his, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, Saudi ambassador to Washington in 1991, would virtually run the US administration during the First Gulf War. Or that oil-rich Saudi coffers would defray the costs -- an estimated $120 billion -- of a war that, according to the Pentagon, “demonstrated effectively the capability and determination of the US and other participating nations (no fewer than 42!) to intervene forcefully to protect their interests”.

In 1945, however, Ibn Saud was at least formally the supplicant. As the representative of the Palestinian-Arabs he did not deny that Europe’s Jews had been cruelly treated. But he argued that innocent Palestinians should not have to pay for Germany’s crimes. “Give them and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who oppressed them”, he told FDR, making no allowance for Jewry’s “sentimental desire” to settle in Palestine. The desert King and FDR got on famously exchanging gifts and pleasantries. “From Ibn Saud, of Arabia, I learned more of the whole problem of the Moslems and more about the Jewish problem in five minutes than I could have learned by the exchange of a dozen letters,” FDR admitted, promising to “do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs”. The US would make “no move hostile to the Arab people,” he wrote on April 5, 1945.He was dead a week later.

His successor, Harry S. Truman, tore up FDR’s promises and told high-ranking US officials less than six months after his predecessor’s death: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” In giving precedence to domestic politics, he had Winston Churchill’s full support, albeit for different reasons.

One was Britain’s Balfour Declaration supporting the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with very few Jews, contained in a letter dated November 2, 1917 from Britain’s foreign secretary (later Prime Minister) Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. Turkey’s entry into the war on the side of the Axis powers was another reason for supporting Zionism.

Race and colour were other determinants whose impact can never be exactly measured. Just as Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, dismisses Palestinians who are being slaughtered in Gaza as “human animals”, and Nazis called Jews “vermin”, the British also spoke contemptuously about the Arabs. “You’d think they’d be grateful after all we did for Feisal and Abdullah”, Churchill said of Ibn Saud, choosing to ignore the fact that King Feisal and King Abdullah were British proteges from a rival royal house and sworn enemies of the Saudis.

If the major powers failed the Palestinians, their own race brothers were not very helpful either. When they rejected the UN partition in 1948, Egypt, Transjordan and Syria invaded mainly to seize what Palestinian territory they could. Saudi Arabia was too remote to benefit territorially but it was only a token participant in the war. The Saudis were about to normalise relations with Israel when the Gaza conflict erupted. The canny Israelis must know that in spite of fine promises of solidarity with Palestine, wealthy Saudi Arabia won’t stop supporting the US even now with vast purchases of American arms. US support helps the Saudis against local and regional adversaries.

Tags: united states, israel, palestine, gaza, us foreign policy, american jewish lobby, diplomacy, middle east conflict