Talhami, American Presidents and Jerusalem

by Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud
published in MER282

Ghada Hashem Talhami, American Presidents and Jerusalem (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).

Jerusalem has been the focus of an increasing number of academic publications in the past several years. Most of these publications focus mainly on the city’s history, identity and changing architectural features since Israel occupied its eastern section after the June 1967 War. Few serious attempts have been made to discuss the human aspect of the city’s united, yet divided, population and even less attention has been paid to US policies toward the city. Ghada Hashem Talhami’s book American Presidents and Jerusalem achieves both tasks by offering the reader a serious and comprehensive study of the evolving policies of American presidents toward Jerusalem as well as the experiences of the Palestinian population during and after the 1967 war. The book comes out during a sensitive period of struggle over the city between the Jewish and Palestinian populations and in the context of renewed assurances by President Donald Trump of his commitment to Israel’s hegemony over a “united” city. Trump’s repeated vows to move the US embassy to Jerusalem adds to the publication’s timely importance.

Talhami draws upon archival documents, memoirs, US foreign relations documents and secondary sources to discuss various American presidents’ policies toward Jerusalem and the Arab-Israeli conflict. She focuses on the implications of the 1967 war, Israel’s occupation and annexation of the eastern sector of the city and the regional and international ramifications of Israel’s actions. Talhami moves from President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, and his romantic view of Jerusalem, to later presidents who adopted a more realistic political foreign policy towards Jerusalem. Her account goes up to President Bill Clinton’s failed efforts to achieve his goal of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Talhami discusses select administrations based on their degree of involvement in the area, with special and appropriate emphasis on the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency because of his role in the 1967 war, the event that changed the fate of Jerusalem and the face of the Middle East.

One of the book’s most significant merits is the author’s examination and illustration of the human cost of occupation on the Palestinian population in 1967, during and after the unification of Jerusalem. Talhami presents a comprehensive picture of the suffering of Jerusalem’s native population and the new wave of refugees as a result of war—the looting, relocation, humiliation, departure and deportation, the theft of property and lack of compensation. Interestingly, the process intensified after the war officially ended. In addition to examining American presidents and their advisors in the US State Department, this study also looks at other actors who have influenced the status of Jerusalem, including Israeli and Palestinian officials, the UN, the Jewish Agency, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the CIA, regional Arab states and significant players (such as King Abdullah of Jordan, King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi oil minister) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other supporters of Israel in Washington. She also discusses the role of oil politics and an international community that continues to regard East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Another significant strength of the book is the author’s exploration of differences and contradictions inside American presidential administrations and an examination of the pressures they face in shaping the US position toward Jerusalem and the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, Talhami describes President Harry S. Truman’s skepticism of the need for a Jewish state and President Theodore Roosevelt’s concern about Arab reactions and the potential negative consequences for oil supplies when several Jewish politicians rose to prominent positions during his presidency. Talhami elaborates on several widely unrecognized factors about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including various US administrations’ internal discontent with Israeli measures in Jerusalem and also with the IDF’s misconduct toward Palestinian civilians. The author points out dilemmas and contradictions that shaped the policies of American presidents. For example, US officials during the Lyndon Johnson administration were alarmed by the departure of many Arabs from the city but when they demanded Israel allow them to return and retain their property, their demands were not met, including for Arabs with American citizenship. On the one hand US administrations claimed neutrality and presented themselves as decent brokers of the conflict and the status of Jerusalem, yet on the other hand continued to emphasize unwavering US support for Israel and its security.

This ambivalence toward Jerusalem was apparent not only among American presidents but also in the actions of other players. For example, there were differences of opinion within the Jewish Agency on the fate of Jerusalem (whether the solution should be partition, internationalization, or a mix) and on its acceptance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 181, which it later rejected.

Talhami has provided valuable insight into US policy towards one of the thorniest topics complicating the Arab-Israeli conflict—the status of Jerusalem. The book concludes with the Clinton administration and its Jerusalem Embassy Act of November 8, 1995 that states Jerusalem should remain an undivided city and be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel. President Trump’s waiver in June 2017 of that congressional act, which mandates that the US embassy be moved to Jerusalem, coincided with Israeli celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, or occupation. Evidently, at least up until now, Trump’s policy toward Jerusalem will not be dramatically different from that of the other US presidents Talhami discusses in her important book.

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