US Pressure – Myth and Reality

Yedioth Achronot, November 11, 2005

Condoleezza Rice is a top Poker player, especially when facing Israelis who are unfamiliar with the Washington ropes, and are therefore easily intimidated by the Secretary of State.


The assumption that Israel cannot afford to defy the US is divorced from reality.  Such an assumption reflects miscomprehension of 1948-1992 precedents, of the wider context of US-Israel relations, of the special role played by the Jewish State in the US Judeo-Christian culture, of the impact by recent global circumstances on US empathy toward Israel, of the US state-of-mind, of the foundations of US democracy and of the declining fortunes of a second term president. 


In 1948/49, the Department of State, Pentagon and the CIA pressured Ben Gurion to refrain from declaration of independence and accept a UN Trusteeship, to internationalize Jerusalem, to allow the return of - and compensate - Palestinian refugees and to end the "occupation" of the Negev.  The ruthless pressure was accompanied by a military embargo and a threat of economic embargo.  Ben Gurion defied the pressure, in spite of the meager resources at his disposal.  In 1967, Eshkol launched a preemptive strike against belligerent Egypt, in defiance of a French military embargo (then, Israel's key arms supplier!) and pressure by LBJ. In 1981, Begin bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, despite a US threat of military embargo reinforcing international and domestic opposition. The three statesmen withstood pressure, launched  unilateral military operations, were victimized by short-term sanctions and criticism, but produced dramatic long-term strategic gains for Israel and for the US.


The three statesmen realized that US-Israel relations did not evolve around the Arab-Israeli conflict, but around the larger scope of joint interests and mutual regional and global threats. Thus, strategic memoranda of understanding were concluded between the US and Israel in 1983 and 1988, despite (or because...) the coarse rejection - by Israel - of the "Reagan Plan", and in spite of the 1982 war in Lebanon and the 1987 eruption of the first Intifadah.  The memoranda were concluded due to Israel's unique contribution to the US efforts against international terrorism, the USSR and ballistic missiles. 


The special strategic ties between the US and Israel are embedded in a foundation of shared Judeo-Christian values, which have prevented a rupture following frequent tensions between the two countries.  The 17th century puritan settlers were students of the Old Testament and appreciated Hebrew.  The Founding Fathers considered the values of Moses, Joshua and Samuel an inspiration for the Constitution and a basis for political and social relationships.  The sculptures of Moses feature prominently in the US Supreme Court and the House of Representatives.  A replica of the Tablets is set on the lawn of the Texas Legislature, and hundreds of locations in the US bear biblical names. Most Americans consider the Jewish State as a prime domestic value, rather than a foreign issue. 


The potential support of the Jewish State has been enhanced since 9/11, as a result of the daily reporting of US GIs killed by Arab/Muslim terrorists, the July 2005 terror blitz in London, the recent Muslim riots in France and the ongoing campaign of Islamic terrorism from the Philippines through Bali, India, Spain and Mauritania. Never has the image of Arabs/Muslims been so low, and never has Israel benefited from such a high potential of support. 


However, the US state-of-mind respects winners with gumption, who defy the odds and stick to principles and values.  The US state-of-mind offers sympathy - but little respect - to those who are afflicted by weariness and battle fatigue.  Therefore, most Americans loved Reagan.  And, therefore, the US upgraded its attitude toward the Jewish State from sympathy to strategic appreciation/respect as a result of the 1948 and 1967 wars, the 1976 "Operation Jonathan/Entebbe", the 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor and the 1982 decimation of the Soviet ground-to-air missiles in eastern Lebanon 


The state-of-mind of the US public and its representatives on Capitol Hill is different than the state-of-mind of the Department of State.  The latter functions - just like any arm of the Administration - under the supervision of Congress, which has been a bastion of support for enhanced US-Israel connection, empowered with the "Power of the Purse" and with a stature equal to the Executive. Also, as the approval rating of presidents decline (which has afflicted second termers) so rises the assertiveness of the Legislature.


Until 1992, all Israeli prime ministers (from Ben Gurion to Shamir) considered Congress as a major platform for the upgrading of US-Israel strategic ties and for the neutralization of Department of State obstructionism.  However, since 1992 all Israeli prime ministers have relegated Congress to the role of a "second team".  Until 1992 all Israeli prime ministers were aware that succumbing to pressure by staunch critics in the Administration would pull the rug from under the feet of steadfast supporters in the US. Therefore, they have, usually, resisted pressure, and have consequently enhanced the bilateral strategic ties.  However, since 1992, all Israeli prime ministers have adopted the policy of Israel's critics in Washington, and as a result have become role model for concessions and submission to pressure.