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Topic: Abba Eban

Reagan and Israel: the Real Story

Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

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Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

Because Republicans today are more supportive of Israel than Democrats, someone usually pops up to say that Obama and Bibi may not like each other very much, but even Ronald Reagan–this is meant to underscore conservatives’ supposed lack of perspective–treated his Israeli counterpart worse than this. A favorite column for these writers is Chemi Shalev’s 2011 Haaretz piece titled “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”

During the current conflict in Gaza the column has been surfaced as usual, recently by Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner. Today in Haaretz, Gershom Gorenberg doesn’t cite Shalev but does take a walk down memory lane to point out many of the times the U.S.-Israel relationship has been in far worse shape, taking a shot at Reagan and his admirers along the way.

So what are all these writers overlooking? Put simply, it’s context. There’s no question Reagan had his fights with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But the question isn’t whether Obama would be “impeached” for treating Israel the way Reagan did. It’s why Obama, or any modern president, gets such pushback anytime the rhetoric approaches that of decades past. It’s not because of the “Israel Lobby.” It’s largely because of the way the U.S.-Israel relationship improved under Reagan and became what it is today.

In 2011, I contributed a post to National Review Online’s “Reagan at 100” series of remembrances NR was running on its Corner blog in honor of Reagan’s centennial. I wrote about Reagan and Begin. Here is part of my post:

Israel’s counteroffensive against the PLO in South Lebanon strained the relationship. But here, too, Reagan proved he could be open-minded about Israel’s predicament. When Reagan lectured Begin on the reports of civilian casualties, Begin painstakingly explained how the media reports not only weren’t true, but could not possibly be true. In a meeting that was supposed to be a dressing-down, Reagan became convinced the Israelis were getting a bad rap in the press. He brought Begin in to meet with his cabinet and told Begin to repeat to them what he had just told the president. Begin obliged, and left feeling a bit better about the trust between the two men.

Another test came with the killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The Israelis were blamed for supposedly allowing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias. The accusation was outrageous, but it wounded Begin. Here again, however, Reagan stood out. [Yehuda] Avner was able to report to his boss that “there are people in the [Reagan] administration who are angry, but not the president.”

The point is that the Begin premiership was a series of challenges for Israel, its allies, and the Jewish diaspora. When Likud won national elections for the first time in 1977, the Columbia Journalism Review noted in a piece two years ago, “[Abba] Eban and others would continue to lunch with their friends at the Times in New York, where they regularly predicted the imminent collapse of the Begin government.” This cohort “spoke frequently to their friends in the media, telling them that the new crowd was a disaster, ‘that Begin was an extreme nationalist, a war-monger.’”

So Begin came into office with Israeli figures already trying to convince Americans they shouldn’t get used to dealing with Begin. Then came Israel’s raid on the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, which Reagan thought he’d been excluded from by Begin when in fact Jimmy Carter had been in consultation with Israel about the threat from the reactor; it was Carter who left Reagan out of the loop. The former American president was poisoning the well of the American government against Begin and Likud.

He didn’t have a ton of poisoning to do with some of Reagan’s advisors. In discussing the Begin inner circle (of which he was a part) and its impression of Caspar Weinberger, Yehuda Avner repeats the wonderful, though likely apocryphal, anecdote that Weinberger, in explaining why he lost his bid for California attorney general, said “Because the Jews knew I wasn’t Jewish and the Gentiles thought I was.” Whatever the actual reasons for their distrust of Begin’s team, which included Ariel Sharon, the relationship between the two Cabinets was icy.

That only increased with the war in Lebanon, Sabra and Shatila, Reagan’s rejected peace plan, etc. But there was one exception: Reagan. He made sure to treat Begin with a legitimacy that was lacking in everyone else’s approach to him. By the end of Reagan’s first term, Begin grew accustomed to being treated with respect by Reagan and being given the benefit of the doubt.

Had Carter still been in office, any one of those challenges might have seriously derailed the relationship at a time (the first Lebanon war) when Israel’s international isolation seemed assured. Reagan may have offered tough love, but it was love nonetheless. And the U.S.-Israel special relationship never looked back. For all the Reagan-Begin disagreements, the U.S.-Israel relationship came out stronger than it was when their respective terms in office began. That’s a tougher standard to meet, which is why the current president’s defenders resort to hyperbole and cherry-picked history that obscure the full picture.

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For Israel’s Critics, Reality Intervenes Again

Ever since Israel ceased to be dominated by one political party, when Menachem Begin’s Likud finally won the 1977 national elections, there has been a striking and ever-increasing disconnect between the Israeli left and the Western, especially American, left. The Israeli leftist establishment was not innocent this disconnect; they in fact planted the seeds. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted in an article about Israel and American media bias, Israeli establishment figures like Abba Eban were very close with the New York Times and other American outlets, and after Begin’s victory they worked assiduously to sabotage Israeli relations with American media figures.

The American press bought it hook, line and sinker, and their coverage reflected it: the Likud was not to be taken seriously as an electoral force, for they would disappear soon, but they were to be taken seriously as a threat to the moral order, for they were dangerous warmongers who could not be trusted. Not much has changed in the way the Israeli right has been portrayed in the press, but this behavior has poisoned relations with Israel in part because the Israeli electorate has now overwhelmingly embraced Likudnik politics. So it is no longer just the Likud portrayed as racists and fascists; it is the Israeli Jewish population on the whole.

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Ever since Israel ceased to be dominated by one political party, when Menachem Begin’s Likud finally won the 1977 national elections, there has been a striking and ever-increasing disconnect between the Israeli left and the Western, especially American, left. The Israeli leftist establishment was not innocent this disconnect; they in fact planted the seeds. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted in an article about Israel and American media bias, Israeli establishment figures like Abba Eban were very close with the New York Times and other American outlets, and after Begin’s victory they worked assiduously to sabotage Israeli relations with American media figures.

The American press bought it hook, line and sinker, and their coverage reflected it: the Likud was not to be taken seriously as an electoral force, for they would disappear soon, but they were to be taken seriously as a threat to the moral order, for they were dangerous warmongers who could not be trusted. Not much has changed in the way the Israeli right has been portrayed in the press, but this behavior has poisoned relations with Israel in part because the Israeli electorate has now overwhelmingly embraced Likudnik politics. So it is no longer just the Likud portrayed as racists and fascists; it is the Israeli Jewish population on the whole.

Of course, this caricature of the Likud in particular, and Israelis in general, is nothing more than a fantasy. But this fantasy world is the one inhabited by the Western press, and Israeli publications viewed with suspicion in Israel but eagerly absorbed in America and Europe, like Haaretz. And we see the effects of this delusion every day: Should Ehud Olmert, the failed ex-prime minister just convicted of breach of trust while premier, return to lead the Israeli opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu? Yes, say the fantasists. Are you crazy? say those with memories longer than a week or so.

And it was only a matter of time before the American media backers of Olmert were blindsided by reality, and the folly of their choices; as Sheldon Adelson wrote here on Friday, Olmert has now taken to spreading conspiracy theories of powerful Jews like Adelson manipulating world leaders to exert control in the name of right-wing Zionism. Olmert’s behavior is: 1.) Gobsmackingly offensive to both countries; 2.) The behavior of a man who should clearly not be in charge of the Jewish state; and 3.) Entirely predictable.

Do Olmert’s backers in Washington- and New York-based publications think it wise for an aspiring Israeli prime minister to target leading Jewish philanthropic actors for character assassination in the name of leftist party politics?

The conversation around Netanyahu is perhaps less reality-based than even the talk about Olmert. There is a visceral hatred of Netanyahu in the press that colors and distorts a very observable reality. In 2010, after Peter Beinart had written his New York Review of Books attack on the “American Jewish establishment,” the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg pitched him a series of questions challenging some of Beinart’s assertions in the piece. The Israeli historian Yaacov Lozowick wrote a blog post after reading the third round of the interview, during which Beinart flatly asserted that Netanyahu came to power in 1996 explicitly opposing the Oslo process, and this curious fact went unchallenged by Goldberg. Lozowick wondered what country the two could have been talking about, because it sure wasn’t Israel. He explained that, leading up the elections, Likud held a series of meetings about its approach to Oslo that culminated in Netanyahu offering “an unequivocal acceptance of the fundamental structure of the Oslo process,” in Lozowick’s formulation. He continued:

When we went to the polls in May 1996, there were parties that were campaigning on platforms of rejection of the Oslo process, but the Likud wasn’t one of them. Since Netanyahu won the elections by less than one percent of the vote, it’s safe to say that had he not repositioned his party, he’d have lost.

Once he won he never (never: not once) rejected the Oslo process. He slowed it down, he added conditions, he did all sorts of things. But the leader of Likud was elected in 1996 on a platform that explicitly accepted the principle of partition.

14 years later – that’s all – a noticeable voice in American Jewry can glibly invent a story about Israel that contradicts the facts, and no-one calls him out on it because no-one knows any better, or if they do they join him in preferring to imagine a fantasy world rather than face reality.

Lozowick added that he did not vote for Netanyahu in any elections preceding that blog post, so he was not speaking as Likud’s defender or a partisan voice. He just didn’t understand the utter lack of interest in the truth.

If you believe what Beinart said about Netanyahu in 1996, Netanyahu’s entire career has been misconstrued and misrepresented, nearly from the beginning. But it surely goes back further, as CJR notes—it goes back to Likud’s first victory. From the moment Likud became a player in world politics by winning in 1977, it has been falsely presented to readers of the American press. And in the media’s desperation to stop Netanyahu, they have now turned to whitewashing the career of Olmert—a plan that was ill conceived and is already backfiring. Reality can only be kept at bay for so long.

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There Could Have Been Two Independence Days

Today is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which commemorates something as close to a miracle as we are ever likely to see — the re-creation of an ancient state in the Land in which it stood 2,000 years before, the resurrection of an ancient language to provide for common discourse, the ingathering of millions of exiles who had no other place to live, the creation of a democracy that extended citizenship not only to Jews but also to Arabs in the midst of an Arab war to destroy the state, the safeguarding of all holy places of all religions and the provision of free access to them, the creation and maintenance of a free and vibrant civil society while under continuous terrorist attack and multiple genocidal wars, and the growth of the nation from a third-world economy into one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hillel Halkin, that “for all its shortcomings and mistakes, Israel is and will always be one of the most glorious historical adventures in the history of mankind.”

But didn’t this new state cause the creation of a new group of refugees, whose own plight remains unresolved 62 years later? The short answer is “no,” but the longer answer is one that many have forgotten or in some cases may not have been permitted to know. The Jewish Press excerpts on its front page Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban’s November 17, 1958, speech to the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee (worth reading in its entirety), which began as follows:

The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. … If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.

Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged. …

“This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that they could have been celebrating today the 62nd anniversary of their own state as well. But 62 years ago, they rejected a two-state solution and commenced the first of multiple wars to extinguish the other one. They have rejected multiple offers of a state since then. Six decades after their first war, they are left without a state but with the refugees created by their attempt to destroy the Jewish one. It is a nakba, but it is not one that Israel caused.

Today is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which commemorates something as close to a miracle as we are ever likely to see — the re-creation of an ancient state in the Land in which it stood 2,000 years before, the resurrection of an ancient language to provide for common discourse, the ingathering of millions of exiles who had no other place to live, the creation of a democracy that extended citizenship not only to Jews but also to Arabs in the midst of an Arab war to destroy the state, the safeguarding of all holy places of all religions and the provision of free access to them, the creation and maintenance of a free and vibrant civil society while under continuous terrorist attack and multiple genocidal wars, and the growth of the nation from a third-world economy into one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hillel Halkin, that “for all its shortcomings and mistakes, Israel is and will always be one of the most glorious historical adventures in the history of mankind.”

But didn’t this new state cause the creation of a new group of refugees, whose own plight remains unresolved 62 years later? The short answer is “no,” but the longer answer is one that many have forgotten or in some cases may not have been permitted to know. The Jewish Press excerpts on its front page Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban’s November 17, 1958, speech to the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee (worth reading in its entirety), which began as follows:

The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. … If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.

Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged. …

“This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that they could have been celebrating today the 62nd anniversary of their own state as well. But 62 years ago, they rejected a two-state solution and commenced the first of multiple wars to extinguish the other one. They have rejected multiple offers of a state since then. Six decades after their first war, they are left without a state but with the refugees created by their attempt to destroy the Jewish one. It is a nakba, but it is not one that Israel caused.

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