The Most Anti-Israel President
Obama has bullied the Jewish state more than any president in history, according to op-ed pages and partisans. They said the same about Reagan.
“The policy of publicly humiliating our traditional ally has made us no new friends in the Arab world and removed the trust needed to encourage Israel to take risks for peace,” argues a prominent conservative columnist. In his piece, he castigates the American administration for its policy toward Israel: “You’d think the heaviest cross [the President] had to bear was the Star of David.”
You could be forgiven for thinking the above was clipped from a column penned by William Kristol about President Barack Obama. But in fact, those are the words of William Safire criticizing Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Safire, the Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist, was none too pleased with the Republican administration’s treatment of the Jewish state. Under Reagan, the United States had withheld promised warplanes from Israel to punish it for destroying Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981 and voted to condemn the action in the United Nations Security Council. It had publicly criticized Israel’s July bombing of the PLO headquarters in Beirut and the ensuing civilian casualties. And it had suspended discussion of a memorandum of strategic cooperation after the Knesset voted to extend Israeli civil law to the occupied Golan Heights.
Safire wasn’t the only one outraged by the White House’s conduct. On Dec. 20, 1981, six days before Safire wrote his piece, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin summoned the American Ambassador Samuel Lewis to read him a prepared statement. Begin did not mince words. “What kind of expression is this—‘punishing Israel’? Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic? Are we youths of fourteen who, if they don’t behave properly, are slapped across the fingers?” Israel and its legislators, said Begin, would not be bullied by the United States. “Let me tell you who this government is composed of. It is composed of people whose lives were spent in resistance, in fighting and in suffering. You will not frighten us with ‘punishments.’ He who threatens us will find us deaf to his threats.”
The United States, Begin fumed, was in no position to lecture Israel about ethics. “You have no moral right to preach to us about civilian casualties,” he said. “We have read the history of World War II and we know what happened to civilians when you took action against an enemy. We have also read the history of the Vietnam War and your phrase ‘body-count.’ We always make efforts to avoid hitting civilian populations, but sometimes it is unavoidable.”
Just in case the United States didn’t get the message, the prime minister promptly read the speech to his Cabinet—and then released it to the public.
Don’t know much about this history? That’s no surprise. Open up a right-leaning editorial page, and you’ll find claims that Barack Obama is the most anti-Israel president ever—or at least since Jimmy Carter. Turn to the New York Times editorial page, and you’ll read that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is the most inveterate right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.
Yet as the Reagan-Begin showdown demonstrates, these two myths, while serving the purposes of political partisans, have little basis in historical fact. The U.S.-Israel relationship has weathered far greater tensions than those experienced under Obama, and Israel has had far more conservative leaders than Netanyahu. Such extremist caricatures—promulgated by editorialists and advocacy groups—aren’t just factually wrong, they stunt our ability to have sensible discussions about the United States, Israel, and their special relationship.
Last month, the Emergency Committee for Israel, an Israel advocacy group chaired by William Kristol, released a 30-minute YouTube documentary titled “Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel” with the ominous tagline “Barack Obama ran for president as a pro-Israel candidate—but his record tells a different story.” One of the first voice-overs is Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who intones: “This president has done more to delegitimize and undermine Israel’s position in the world than any other president.” One wonders what Krauthammer and the Emergency Committee would have made of Reagan’s strong-arming of the Jewish state. Beyond the incidents chronicled above, the Gipper also sold Airborne Warning and Control System surveillance planes to the Saudis, over the strenuous objections of Israel and its supporters in Congress. (Sen. Ted Kennedy called it “one of the worst and most dangerous arms sales ever proposed.”)
Reagan was not the only president willing to put daylight between the United States and Israel. His successor, George H.W. Bush, made waves at a 1990 news conference when he said, “My position is that the foreign policy of the United States says we do not believe there should be new settlements in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem.” It was a statement that could just as easily have been made by President Obama. But unlike Obama, Bush took this controversial position a step further, conditioning $10 billion of loan guarantees to Israel on a total cessation of settlement building. He later compromised and allowed the loans to go forward, but with deductions commensurate with Israel’s construction in the occupied territories.
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