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A Problem In American Foreign Policy: Palestine

A Problem In American Foreign Policy: Palestine

by Former U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean



Below are some thoughts on American policy toward Palestine from Ambassador John Gunther Dean. Born Jewish in Germany, John Gunther Dean cares deeply both about his adopted homeland, the United States of America, and about justice and human decency.

Dear friends and former colleagues:

Having just celebrated my 80th birthday, I feel the need to commit to paper my outlook on the role of an American diplomat. I should add that when I took the U.S. Foreign Service examination more than 50 years ago, there were few naturalized citizens in the Service. I still believe today that an American diplomat’s first obligation is to look after U.S. long-term national interests and not to have dual allegiance due to family ties with another country or religious affiliations. As I repeated on several occasions before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee when seeking confirmation for an ambassadorial assignment, I always believed and was told that I represented a secular state and that tolerance, respect for the law, justice, fairness and perhaps compassion were qualities which Americans like to be known for around the world. In my many years of public services I tried to live up to these standards. I also always believed that speaking up for the truth was essential.

Having fled my native land because of Nazi persecution, I became progressively appalled by the Israeli policy and actions in Palestine and against the Palestinian people. But even more alarming was the consistent American policy to support unequivalently Israeli actions and policy on Palestine. I believed while was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, and today as a retired person, that I cannot have dual values. As U.S. ambassador to Lebanon I fiercely criticized Israeli policy in Lebanon which resulted in my family and myself nearly being killed with American weapons shipped to Israel. I spoke up 26 years ago on Israeli policy in the Near East and I still speak up today about current U.S. policy toward the area which I believe is not in the long-term interest of the United States (nor in that of Israel).

It is for that reason, as a patriotic American, who served in two wars and held senior positions in U.S. Embassies located in countries racked by civil strife, that I have put a few ideas on paper. I am sending these thoughts to you in the attachment in the hope that our leaders today will take note of them so that our descendants will continue to be proud to say “I am an American” and foreigners will continue to look at America as a beacon of hope for humanity.


John Gunther Dean
Former Deputy for CORDS in military Region 1 Vietnam
Chargé D’affaires – LAOS
Ambassador to Cambodia
Ambassador to Denmark
Ambassador to Lebanon
Ambassador to Thailand
Ambassador to India


In many ways, the Palestine problem is the most pervasive, complex and dangerous problem in American foreign policy. It is also the most difficult to address because it is so deeply embedded in guilt, emotion and fear as to be almost beyond rational thought. Americans, both government officials and private citizens, feel far freer to criticize America, Britain or France without being thought to dislike or oppose the peoples of those countries, but most non-Jews are afraid of being charged with anti-Semitism even if they are only critical of the hard-line policies of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This American attitude is not only demeaning to us Americans but is not helping Israel or Jews elsewhere. Israel is no longer, if it ever was, an international charity. It is a relatively powerful, rich nation-state. It should be analyzed, as its own citizens analyse its actions, in respectful terms.

Like any other two states, Israel and America have national interests which do not always coincide. Only if the citizens of each rationally define their interests and understand what they are prepared to do to protect them can they correctly order and evaluate their relationship. Certainly that is how the Israelis themselves have always analyzed their relations with America. When Israel saw a conflict between its goals and ours, it naturally chose its own. America has seldom done so. At the governmental level we tip-toe around issues which have severely harmed American interests. Example: the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon was profoundly disturbing to American relations throughout the Middle East; its policy toward the Palestinians has stopped the peace process and certainly promoted terrorism directed at America.

We have closed our eyes to events which elsewhere and by other people we would oppose, in some cases even with military force. Two of the most spectacular instances are when Israeli agents set fire to an American government library in Alexandria in 1954 in an attempt to damage Egyptian-American relations and when the Israeli air force and navy attempted in 1967 to sink a U.S. Naval ship, USS Liberty, during which attack 75 American servicemen were wounded and 34 were killed. They shot up even the life boats and life preservers with torpedo, machinegun, rocket and napalm fire, apparently attempting to ensure that there were no survivors. Such an attack by any other country in the world would almost certainly have provoked an immediate military reaction.

Despite our own fiscal problems, the U.S. has been a cornucopia for Israel. We have given to Israel or provided in loans that were never expected to be repaid about $100 billion, have given Israel special trade relationships that in some cases remove import duties we charge other countries and have subsidized Israel armaments industry even when it has thwarted American policy by selling arms where we are trying to prevent arms sales, as it did recently with China. Mindful of the danger of being thought to be anti-Semitic, American specialists on the Middle East feel inhibited to say in public what their studies lead them to think.

Israelis act in a far more egotistical and security-conscious fashion than Americans. Whereas Americans fear to criticize the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the outstanding Israeli scholar Avi Shlaim [1] was forthright in describing the Israeli occupation of Gaza before their unilateral withdrawal. After pointing out that in Gaza the 8,000 Israeli settlers controlled 40% of the arable land and most of the water while the 1.3 million Palestinians struggle to exist in what little remains to them, he commented that the Israeli occupation “is a hopeless colonial enterprise, accompanied by one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.” A non-Jewish American writing that would have been excoriated as anti-Semitic or even hounded from his academic or government post. This is unworthy of America and is misleading for the Israelis. Knowing that they have virtually a blank check to do as they wish, they pay little attention to American government attempts to bring about conditions conducive to its interests in the Middle East. This is not to say that the Israelis are to blame; Americans are more at fault. The Israelis are merely acting rationally as they see their interests. It is America that is acting irrationally. Many senior and respected Israelis agree. They worry that the main beneficiary of the American weakness is the Israeli extreme Right and that Israeli’s long-term best interests, and even Israeli democracy, will suffer as a consequence.


[1] Born in Baghdad in 1945, he grew up in Israel, served in the Israeli army and is now British Academy Research Professor of international relations at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He also commented on what we all know that “American foreign policy has habitually displayed double standards toward the Middle East: one standard towards Israel and one towards the Arabs. To give just one example, the U.S effected regime change in Baghdad in three weeks but has failed to dismantle a single Jewish settlement in the occupied territories in 38 years.”


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