Review: My Mission in Israel by James McDonald

mcdonald-my-mission-in-israelI recently finished reading a memoir by the United States’ first ambassador to Israel, James G. McDonald. In My Mission in Israel, the former ambassador shares his personal experiences and reflections on the founding of the Jewish state, its early statesmen (and stateswomen), the international politics surrounding its establishment, war and diplomacy in the Middle East in the late 1940s, and the future of the region.

Published in 1951, McDonald hardly enjoys the benefit of hindsight in his assessment of the future of the region, but as a commentary on the turbulent politics of the period, his account is invaluable. Appointed first as the US Representative to the newly declared State of Israel on July 23, 1948, he had the distinction of being one of the first international diplomats to interface on an official government-to-government level with Israel’s early leadership.

As such, he was present for the development of Israel’s political institutions and was witness to the internal political wrangling and often open conflict between PM David Ben Gurion and President Chaim Weitzman regarding the role of presidential versus parliamentary power, between Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharett on the place of domestic politics versus international diplomacy, between the secular establishment and religious authorities regarding the place of Judaism in the new state, and for the transformation of rightist Revisionist Zionists from “terrorists” to “politicians”.

More interesting than his thoughts on internal Israeli politics, however, is his insight into the place of international diplomacy in the dissolution of the British Mandate, the founding of Israel and its war of independence, the armistice agreements which eventually followed, and how international interests, particularly American ones, engaged on the question of Israel’s post-Mandate borders and Arab refugees. Often ignored in contemporary discussions of the conflict, McDonald highlights how international engagement even then centered on the questions of borders, Jerusalem, and refugees.

Many forget that the American political establishment was ambivalent regarding Israel’s demands for “defensible borders” insisting at first that Israel concede the Negev in the south to Jordan or Egypt in exchange for its capture of the Galilee in the north, not originally allotted to it in the UN Partition Plan. Israel, having secured these borders only following attacks by Egypt in the south and Syria, Jordan, and Iraq in the north, was not prepared to concede territory arguing it would “reward aggression” which continued even during UN brokered ceasefires.

So too, did the United States originally take a less than soft line on the internationalization of Jerusalem, as did much of Christian Europe, the Vatican, and Catholic Latin America. Here, McDonald highlights how Israeli leaders of all political inclinations recognized the “special significance” of the city in the national imagination which they were unwilling to concede despite potential strategic and economic advantages for pursuing such a course. Even though “new” Jerusalem lacked the vast majority of Jewish holy sites, the symbolic importance of Jewish presence in and control of the city, if only in part, overrode such concerns. Paradoxically, because Jordan too rejected international efforts to internationalize the de facto divided city and the Arab world rejected any form of Israeli control, the matter was abandoned.

On the question of Arab refugees, McDonald is openly sympathetic to their plight and bemoans the fact that Israel, the Arab states, and the international community at large chose to treat the issue as a political question rather than a human tragedy. In this, he notes that there is plenty of blame to go around, but presciently argues that Arab states used this issue to distract from their own internal problems while Israel would continue to insist that a resolution of refugee claims could only be in the framework of a general peace in which return would not simply be a means for continuing the conflict.

In a manner quite inconsistent with western diplomats in the Middle East today, the former ambassador’s language is heavy with Christian overtones. His religious beliefs have an unmistakable impact on his assessment of the politics of Israel’s founding. While he is certainly sympathetic to the Zionist project, it is even more evident that he sees the establishment of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical promise; as he puts it, “Isaiah fulfilled.” As I have noted above, a Christian bias does not necessarily here indicate an uncritical approach to Israel. On the question of Christian holy sites and Christian heritage, while McDonald seems to put more faith in Israeli stewardship than those of Arab states, he too appears to prefer internationalization. As an advocate of the state, however, he does recount his efforts to lobby the Vatican on Israel’s behalf. He also notes how he pressured Israel at critical points during the War of Independence to agree to international negotiations when Israelis felt doing so was hardly in their best interests.

Regarding Israel’s future, McDonald believed that a looming “second round” of war would not be forthcoming and that Israel would be able to make peace with Arab states within the decade. As evidence, he details early efforts by King Abdullah of Jordan to broker a separate peace or, at the very least, a non-aggression pact. These expectations were clearly spoiled by the revolutions which swept the Arab world in the 1950s (Abdullah himself was assassinated while visiting Jerusalem in 1951) which replaced monarchs and elected leaders with military coups, demagogues, and autocrats which became the standard of Arab leadership from the 1950s until this year’s apparent “Arab Spring.” He also argues that Israelis were prepared to accept the post-1949 borders as final in any peace settlement. The reality of constant “fedayeen raids” throughout the 1950s, the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the 1967 Six Day War too seemingly erased the possibility of peace on these formative borders.

If anything, these realties confirm the maxim that it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future and for that McDonald cannot be faulted. That he should be so optimistic when so many in the region itself were anything but is however surprising. Perhaps, it should serve as a caution to those who take the opinions of those perceived to be on the inner circle of any given political situation as the truth. Few people were more in the know about the politics of the Middle East in these formative years than McDonald, and even he got it completely wrong. Regardless, as a commentary on the diplomatic micro-history of the Middle East at this time, his memoirs are an indispensible resource and well worth the read.

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