“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.
His son George W. Bush is often held up as a model of unwavering support of Israel. But he took after his father when it came to settlement policy. As the New York Times reported in November 2003, the Bush Administration rescinded $289.5 million of loan guarantees to Israel as “punishment for illegal construction activities in the West Bank.” These sentiments were also expressed in international forums. Bush’s hawkish ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, serving as the president of the Security Council in 2006, issued a statement on its behalf declaring: “The Security Council underlines the need for the Palestinian Authority to prevent terrorist attacks and dismantle the infrastructure of terror. It reiterates its view that settlement expansion must stop and its concern regarding the route of the [Israeli security] barrier.”
Taken together, these incidents paint a more accurate picture of the American-Israel relationship and its attendant tensions (and also put the lie to the noxious claim that the Israel lobby has a stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy). Indeed, many more examples could be marshaled to demonstrate that America and Israel have always had their strategic and diplomatic differences, despite their shared values. President Obama’s more critical stance toward Israel, in other words, is well-represented in the American political tradition—and the robust U.S.-Israel relationship has survived far worse friction than anything that has taken place under this “most anti-Israel president.” Seen in historical context, Obama’s prodding of Israel looks less like throwing the country under a bus and more like poking it tentatively with a salad fork.
But if those on the right are guilty of exaggerating the president’s alleged offenses against the Jewish state, left-wingers have been just as hyperbolic in their condemnations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition.
On March 19, Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund, told a group of students from Yale Divinity School that the Jewish state “has the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.” Writing in the Independent earlier that month, Avi Shlaim, an Israeli-born historian at Oxford, called Netanyahu’s coalition “the most aggressively right-wing, diplomatically intransigent, and overtly racist government in Israel’s history.” Indeed, this accusation of unprecedented extremism has become so widespread that it has been repeated, with slight qualification, as a fact in articles by mainstream press outlets like the Christian Science Monitor.
Apparently, these individuals have entirely forgotten the policies of Menachem Begin—not to mention those of more conservative Israeli prime ministers, like Yitzhak Shamir. Begin disregarded American concerns and international consensus with aplomb, as when he bombed Iraq and Lebanon. He appointed Ariel Sharon as the head of his settlement committee, and together they expanded Israel’s construction in the West Bank and Gaza, building more than 50 settlements over the objections of domestic opponents and the international community. The Associated Press reported Sharon quipping to the Knesset: “While you’re shouting here, we lay another foot of pipe, another mile of road and build another house.” Needless to say, there was no serious talk of a Palestinian state during Begin’s tenure.
But Begin was a pushover compared to his successor, Shamir, whose government was dubbed in 1991 by the New York Times editorial board—in an interesting turn of phrase—“the most right-wing in Israeli history.” Despite pressure and eventually threats from President George H. W. Bush, Shamir doggedly continued settlement expansion and insisted that the United States finance such building with loan guarantees. Under Shamir, the Chicago Tribune noted, “The number of housing units under construction in the occupied territories reportedly more than quadrupled to 12,985 last year from 2,880 in 1990.” And for his perceived intransigence on peace initiatives, Shamir famously earned himself the nickname “Mr. No.”
It is hard see how the Netanyahu government could possibly be more extreme than these predecessors, none of which officially acknowledged the need for a Palestinian state, and all of which spurred far greater settlement growth. Netanyahu, by contrast, spearheaded a partial settlement freeze for 10 months, something Begin and Shamir categorically refused to do.
The difference is evident in rhetoric as well as action: Compared to Begin’s public berating of the American ambassador in 1981, Netanyahu’s polite disagreement with President Obama’s position regarding the 1967 borders appears positively demure. To take another example, in June 2009, Netanyahu accepted the two-state framework in a speech at Bar Ilan University, saying: “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem, and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence.” Contrast that sentiment with the final Knesset speech of peace icon Yitzhak Rabin, in which he asserted that “a Palestinian entity … will be a home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. We would like this to be an entity which is less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority.”
Yes, Netanyahu’s coalition contains several right-wing parties. But it also contains Ehud Barak as its defense minister, along with his center-left Independence faction. Even Avigdor Lieberman, the government’s far-right foreign minister, supports a variant of the two-state solution, albeit a highly controversial one. Given that even the most extreme component of the current coalition recognizes the legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations, it strains credulity to claim that this government is more extreme than predecessors who made no such allowance.
There are many questions one could ask about the choices Obama and Netanyahu have made: In publicly criticizing the Jewish state in the immediate wake of a more accommodating Bush presidency, did the president unintentionally alienate the Israelis while unreasonably raising Palestinian expectations? Has Netanyahu’s Iran-centric policy been a step backward from the gradual progress toward peace with the Palestinians made under Barak, Sharon, and Olmert, slowly frittering away the gains and good will built up under his predecessors?
But while such topics and others are worthy of serious consideration, shrill accusations of unprecedented extremism against the leaders of America and Israel are not. They don’t advance the conversation, and they don’t hold up to the historical record. So, next time you see Barack Obama called the most anti-Israel president, or Benjamin Netanyahu called the Jewish state’s most impudent prime minister, remember Reagan and Begin.
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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.