When Israel Stood Up to Washington

News Abroad

Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. This article originally appeared at FrontPageMag.

As U.S.-Israel tensions climb to unfamiliar heights, they recall a prior round of tensions nearly thirty years ago, when Menachem Begin and Ronald Reagan were in charge.  In contrast to Binyamin Netanyahu's repeated apologies, Begin adopted a quite different approach.

The sequence of events started with a statement from Syrian dictator Hafiz al-Asad that he would not make peace with Israel "even in a hundred years," Begin responded by making the Golan Heights part of Israel, terminating the military administration that had been governing that territory from the time Israeli forces seized it from Syria in 1967.  Legislation to this effect easily passed Israel's parliament on Dec. 14, 1981.

Menachem Begin with Samuel Lewis on a friendlier occasion in May 1977.

This move came, however, just two weeks after the signing of a U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation Agreement, prompting much irritation in Washington.  At the initiative of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, the U.S. government suspended that just-signed agreement.  One day later, on Dec. 20, Begin summoned Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv, for a dressing-down.

Yehuda Avner, a former aide to Begin, provides atmospherics and commentary on this episode at "When Washington bridled and Begin fumed."  As he retells it, "The prime minister invited Lewis to take a seat, stiffened, sat up, reached for the stack of papers on the table by his side, put them on his lap and [adopted] a face like stone and a voice like steel."  Begin began with "a thunderous recitation of the perfidies perpetrated by Syria over the decades."  He ended with what he called "a very personal and urgent message" to President Reagan (available at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website).

"Three times during the past six months, the U.S. Government has 'punished' Israel," Begin began.  He enumerated those three occasions:  the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the bombing of the PLO headquarters in Beirut, and now the Golan Heights law.  Throughout this exposition, according to Avner, Lewis interjected but without success:  "Not punishing you, Mr. Prime Minister, merely suspending ...,"  "Excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister, it was not ...,"  "Mr. Prime Minister, I must correct you ...," and "This is not a punishment, Mr. Prime Minister, it's merely a suspension until ..."

Fully to vent his anger, Begin drew on a century of Zionism:

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?  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.  We are only prepared to listen to rational arguments.  You have no right to "punish" Israel – and I protest at the very use of this term.

In his most stinging attack on the United States, Begin challenged American moralizing about civilian casualties during the Israeli attack on Beirut:

You have no moral right to preach to us about civilian casualties.  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."

Referring to the U.S. decision to suspend the recently signed agreement, Begin announced that "The people of Israel has [sic] lived 3,700 years without a memorandum of understanding with America – and it will continue to live for another 3,700."  On a more mundane level, he cited Haig having stated on Reagan's behalf that the U.S. government would purchase $200 million worth of Israeli arms and other equipment.  "Now you say it will not be so.  This is therefore a violation of the President's word.  Is it customary?  Is it proper?"

Recalling the recent fight in the U.S. Senate over the decision to sell AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, Begin noted that it "was accompanied by an ugly campaign of anti-Semitism."  By way of illustration, he mentioned three specifics:  the slogans "Begin or Reagan?" and "We should not let the Jews determine the foreign policy of the United States," plus aspersions that senators like Henry Jackson, Edward Kennedy, Robert Packwood, and Rudy Boschwitz "are not loyal citizens."

Responding to demands that the Golan Heights law be rescinded, Begin sourced the very concept of rescission to "the days of the Inquisition" and reminded Lewis that

Our forefathers went to the stake rather than "rescind" their faith.  We are not going to the stake.  Thank God.  We have enough strength to defend our independence and to defend our rights. … please be kind enough to inform the secretary of state that the Golan Heights Law will remain valid.  There is no force on earth that can bring about its rescission.

Menachem Begin consulting with Yehuda Avner.

The session ended without Lewis responding.  As Avner recounts, "Faced with this unyielding barrage, which to the ambassador seemed somewhat hyperbolic and, in part, even paranoid, he saw no point in carrying on, so he took his leave."

Comments: (1) Late 1981 marked the nadir of U.S.-Israel relations during the Reagan administration.  In particular, strategic cooperation made headway in subsequent years.

(2) The ministry website calls Begin's blast "an unprecedented move"; to which I add, it was not just unprecedented but also unrepeated.

(3) Begin's sense of destiny, combined with his oratorical grandeur impelled him to respond to current policy differences by invoking 3,700 years of Jewish history, the Inquisition, the Vietnam War, and American antisemitism.  In the process, he changed the terms of the argument.

(4) Notwithstanding intense American aggravation with Begin, his blistering attack improved Israeli pride and standing.

(5) Politicians in other countries quite frequently attack the United States.  Indeed, Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, did so last week.  But his purpose – to convince his countrymen that he is not, in fact, a kept politician – differed fundamentally from Begin's of asserting Israel's dignity.

(6) It is difficult to imagine any other Israeli politician, Binyamin Netanyahu included, who would dare to pull off Begin's verbal assault.

(7) Yet that might be just what Israel needs.

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Arnold Shcherban - 4/18/2010

Obama is one-term stand, Omar; don't doubt it for a second.

Elliott Aron Green - 4/18/2010

RRH is basically correct. However, top Inquisition officials, such as Torquemada, as I recall, pressured the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella [los reyes catolicos], to drive the Jews out of Spain except those willing to convert.

Elliott Aron Green - 4/18/2010

Mr Kovachev makes astute observations about the resemblance of current Obama administration demands on Israel to medieval and pre-modern treatment of Jews, to the treatment of Jews in countries considered backward.
For instance, he points to the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire which was in fact instituted early in the 19th century, if I am not mistaken. The Pale was a large zone in the empire where Jews were allowed to live, although most of the empire was off limits to Jews, and there were some forbidden zones even with the general area of the Pale. This sounds much like Obama-Clinton's demands to stop Jews from living in formerly Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem and formerly Jordanian-occupied Judea-Samaria.

This Obama policy could be a proof for those who hold a view of history as cyclical and recurrent.

Peter Kovachev - 4/13/2010

You are technicsally correct, Mr Hamilton. The confusion, I think, stems from the fact that massacres and forced conversions of Jews by various secular authorities and mobs were occuring in many locations at the same time when the Inquisition was all fired-up. The "foot soldiers" were the friars, chiefly Dominicans, who were "over-lapping" their activities by working for the Office of the Holy Inquisition, while "moonlighting" for local authorities and organizing "extra-legal" popular attacks against Jews.

Because the Papacy had lost control over the Inquisition, especially in places far from Rome, and because judicial standards then were, well, not as strict as today, it was not unusual for Jews to be charged with being converts or descendants of converts on fabricated evidence. As an aside, two fascinating books: *The Friars and the Jews* by (I think) Norman Cohn, and Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie's *Montaillou,* on the Fournier records of the Inquisition work against the Cathars in the Languedoc region.

Of course, the fine points of jurisdiction and mandates were lost on the Jewish victims, who cared little which hat their persecutors wore at the time. Not meaning to be contentious, it can also be said though that far more Catholics died in persecutions by Protestants than Jews as well. The crucial difference, to Jews, was that unlike the warring Christians, they were defenseless and had no reliable authorities, governments or locations to turn to...until 1948. The bottom line is that statelessness can be dangerous, as many formerly pacifist Protestants discovered and went onto securing nation states with the capacity to bite back.

I would go as far as speculating that Israel's roots go back to the dynamics of Protestant revolts and nation-building. While the Jewish-Protestant relationship was far from rosy, there was more of an affinity, based on scriptural puritanism and cultural values between Protestants and Jews than any others. This may in part explain the special relationship between Jews and the U.S. It is weird to think that the establishment of the City of God in Geneva may have had more to do with the rebirth of the modern Jewish state than Theodore Herzl's *Altneuland* !

R.R. Hamilton - 4/12/2010

I've noticed that a lot of Jews think that "Jews who refused to convert" were killed by the Inquisition.

This. is. not. true.

The Inquisition was established to fight heretics, not infidels. Therefore, the only Jews under its jurisdiction were those who had already professed to have converted. When these Jews were found to have "lapsed" or even "falsely professed their Christian conversions", ONLY THEN were they subject to the Inquisition.

Btw, I'm Protestant, and far more Protestants than Jews were killed by the Inquisitors. (Protestants, like relapsed Jews, were considered Christian heretics.) So, I am not saying this out of any pro-Inquisition or anti-Jewish bias, but simply that it is the truth.

Peter Kovachev - 4/11/2010

Good points. In the hope of shaking their heads, Bibi might even remind the Obamistas that their unprecedented demands (for the U.S.) are eerily similar to medieval European and Czarist statutes and decrees against Jewish building and communal expansion in the old ghettos and Pales of Settlement.

On the other hand, they might think it a swell idea to emulate and apply such gems of jurisprudence.

Also, what would be the point in Bibi's trying to get through to this administration, especially before it gets clipped in the mid-terms over its overall record of failures and incompetencies? If my country, Canada, serves as a model, the best thing to do for now is to carry on with things discreetly (e.g., defunding antisemitic NGOs and UNRWA), to smile and nod in public, and never to look the lunatics in the eye ... at least until your electorate puts them in a straightjacket in November and hopefully (please!) back out on the street in 2012.

The bottom line is that Obama is no Reagan, and engaging extremists and ideologues on points of logic or justice is both futile and dangerous. Until then, let us all pray to be spared of your administration's "historic moments" and "smart" diplomacy.

omar ibrahim baker - 4/11/2010

Not that I disagree with your contribution Arnold BUT my main point was to stress Israel's domination of USA Middle East policies and to point out that should President Obama persevere, which I doubt with, as always, a second term in mind, it would be an American/American tussle!

Arnold Shcherban - 4/9/2010

Come on, Omar, don't be so naive: the occasional "disharmonies" happening between USA and Israel is just a traditional game, played by the US to save a face of legitimacy in the eyes of the wide international community; those disharmonies have never produced and will never produce any discerning results in respect of practical steps taken by Israeli government,... until
they stop to be a game.
Don't expect, however, the latter to occur in the nearest future, if ever.
You, perhaps, as many others I know and heard about, are willing to give too much credit and expect extra something from B. Obama in the Palestinian-Israeli regard, as well as on other hot international issues. I sorry to blow you bubble, good fella, but read my leaps: no radical changes in the US foreign policy and strategy are going to happen over Obama's presidency. Otherwise, call me on this pessimistic prognosis.

omar ibrahim baker - 4/9/2010

It is good of Pipes to recollect and remind all of us here of earlier Israeli/US cases of "disharmony".
The message is clear enough: Netanyahu stand up to the USA and the USA will be the first to blink and climb down.
Ironically this is what the USA brought on itself: Israelis and pro Israelis emboldened into openly defying, and publicly insulting, the USA via its VP.
How is it that Israel & Co, and the USA! came to this?
The answer that imposes itself is: through total, unconditional, unlimited political, economic and military USA AID to Israel.
And it is NOT only aid and support BUT, since 1967, a USA acquiescence to an Israeli takeover of USA policies in the Middle East that has already embroiled it in one war, the Iraqi conquest, and threatens to embroil it in another much more costly with Iran.
The syndrome of a vigorous and dynamic junior partner taking over from an enfeebled, senility tending, senior partner is a classical case of all nefarious partnerships in which, with their divergent outlooks and conflicting ambitions, they are bound to fall out sooner or later.
I contend that this Israeli/US “confrontation” is much more significant and relevant to the USA than to the region for it would be settled INSIDE the USA by internal forces/factors and its output will either proclaim American independence or confirm Israeli predominance in the realm, for now, of USA policies in the Middle East!