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Shall We Wake the Prime Minister, Habibi?

American politicians love to talk about ‘3 a.m. phone calls,’ but Israeli leaders actually receive them

Tevi Troy
January 24, 2017
Original image: Joseph Hass collection at Haifa University
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol is briefed by generals (including his Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin) in 1967.Original image: Joseph Hass collection at Haifa University
Original image: Joseph Hass collection at Haifa University
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol is briefed by generals (including his Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin) in 1967.Original image: Joseph Hass collection at Haifa University

In 2008, Hillary Clinton established the standard of readiness for American presidents with her famous 2008 “3 a.m. phone call” advertisement. In the TV ad, children are sleeping peacefully while an off-screen voice says, “Something is happening in the world. … Your vote will decide who answers that call.” Hillary was unsuccessful in that race, losing to Barack Obama, but the ad hit a nerve, and the American people now look to this standard in looking for a leader. Yet despite the interest in presidential wake-ups, the truth is that they do not happen that often. Obama told talk show host Jimmy Kimmel that he had only been awakened three or four times over the course of his presidency, and never in the face of any kind of existential threat.

But while the 3 a.m. call may be a bit of a myth in America, the late-night wake-up is a recurring reality for Israeli prime ministers. Unsurprisingly, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was the first to experience a prime ministerial wake-up call, which came before he was even officially prime minister. Ben-Gurion was awakened at 1 a.m. on May 15, 1948—he became prime minister on the 17th—to be told that U.S. President Harry Truman had recognized the fledgling State of Israel. Ben-Gurion was then disturbed at 4 a.m., without having fallen asleep in the interim, to be brought to speak over the radio for an American audience at what is now Tel Aviv’s Independence Park. While he was in the midst of speaking, Tel Aviv was attacked, a point Ben-Gurion made sure to include in his broadcast. The War of Independence had begun. Ben-Gurion recalled seeing that “[p]eople in pajamas and nightgowns glanced out of every house—but they didn’t seem unduly frightened.” Israelis were already displaying their characteristic nonchalance in the face of danger.

A war for a state’s very existence leads to many sleepless nights, and the War of Independence was no exception. Two months later, in July of 1948, Israel faced an internal crisis in the middle of an external crisis. The Altalena—an Irgun ship bringing in badly needed armaments from France—was off the coast of Israel, but Ben-Gurion was determined to enforce the unity of Israel’s military. At an urgent 4 a.m. meeting convened to discuss the issue, Israeli Chief of Naval Operations Shmuel Yanai told Ben-Gurion that his forces could disable the Altalena without gunfire, and therefore presumably with no loss of life. As with many briefings that take place at that hour, Yanai’s information was wrong. Israeli forces did employ gunfire in the incident, sinking the Altalena and killing 16.

War continued to be a cause for waking up prime ministers in Israel’s early decades. In late May 1967, as Arab nations prepared for war against Israel, both the U.S. and Soviet Union worked to persuade Israel not to launch a preemptive strike. The rival superpowers shared a common cause in this endeavor. When Secretary of State Dean Rusk received a copy of a letter from Soviet First Deputy Minister Alexei Kosygin threatening Israel if it struck first, Rusk recommended to his boss, Lyndon Johnson, that they share it immediately with Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. The idea was that the threat from the Soviets, combined with the entreaties from the United States, would deter Israel from a first strike. The Soviets had a similar idea. Soviet Ambassador to Israel Dimitri Chuvakhin woke up Eshkol at 2:10 a.m. on May 27 with Kosygin’s letter, which included a Kremlin-originated “warning to the Israeli government not to increase the tension and not to escalate the situation to the point of letting the weapons talk.”

Israel did not attack then, but would indeed engage in a successful preemptive strike June 5, triggering the Six Day war. At the White House, National Security Adviser Walt Rostow learned the hostilities had begun at 2:50 a.m., whereupon he spoke to Secretary of State Rusk at 3:25 a.m., then called President Johnson at 4:35 a.m. This means the events of the late spring of 1967 led to both the prime minister of Israel and the American president being woken up by emergency phone calls.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, both Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were awakened at 8 a.m. Oct. 6 to be informed that Israel could expect to be attacked at 6 p.m. that evening. The attack actually came at 2 p.m. that afternoon, and the six-hour window for mobilization was insufficient for Israel to deflect the initial attacks. On the American side, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger learned of the Arab attacks from the Israelis at 6 a.m. Washington time. Kissinger chose not to disturb President Richard Nixon, who was in Key Biscayne, Florida, with the news until 9:25 a.m. that same morning. When informed, Nixon asked that Kissinger “indicate you talked to me” for posterity.

A few weeks later, when Israel had turned the tide of the war, the Soviets suddenly and urgently wanted hostilities to end. American officials met at 9:50 p.m. on Oct. 24 to discuss the fact that Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev was threatening Soviet intervention unless Israel accepted a cease-fire. The U.S. officials, led by Kissinger and White House Chief of Staff Al Haig, discussed the matter well into the night, and again decided not to wake up Nixon. Kissinger even justified his decision, saying Nixon “would just start charging around, ‘I don’t think we should bother the president.’ ” It was not until 3:05 p.m. the next afternoon that Kissinger would apprise Nixon of the situation, saving his boss another wake-up call, while preserving his own power to steer events.

Another Israel-related presidential wake-up happened in January of 1991, during the first Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush had been working to keep Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from retaliating for Iraqi Scud missile attacks aimed at drawing Israel into the fray. As Bush recalled, “[I] put on the hardest sale I have ever used” to persuade Shamir not to respond. As Bush wrote in his diary, “God, I hope I made headway on that.” Following Bush’s successful lobbying, Iraq attacked Israel again. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft woke up Bush at 1:30 a.m. to let him know. Bush feared the worst, writing in his diary that “They are going to retaliate.” Yet Shamir kept his cool. Bush called the prime minister to express his gratitude and followed up by sending Israel a shipment of Patriot missiles.

Terrorism has also been the cause for many a prime-ministerial wake-up. In 1972, Golda Meir was awakened at 5 a.m. to be told that Palestinian terrorists had taken the Israeli Olympic team hostage in Munich. In 2003, during the Second Intifada, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was awakened on a visit to India to be told of a café bombing in Jerusalem. The attack was the second that night, and although Sharon initially said he would not be returning to Israel after hearing of the first attack, he did agree to cut the trip short after hearing of the second bombing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now the second-longest-serving PM in Israeli history (after Ben-Gurion) has had his share of wake-ups. Terrorism has been one of the causes. In October 1998, for example, Netanyahu was awakened after a terrorist threw two grenades at the central bus station in Beersheba, injuring 30. But he has also been awoken by citizens whose aim was to deprive him of sleep, in order to register their disapproval of his policies. In 2010, protesting students made a racket outside his house to object to what they saw as excessive state spending on Yeshiva education.

As these incidents show, American politicians may talk about 3 a.m. phone calls, but Israeli leaders appear more apt to receive them. And when American presidents do get the call, Israel is often on the agenda. In the Middle East, late-night phone calls are a familiar part of the territory, as President Donald Trump and designated regional troubleshooter Jared Kushner are sure to discover. Late-night tweets from the White House will likely add a new chapter to this story.


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Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Institute. He is a former White House aide and the author of four books on the presidency, including, most recently, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.

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