Opinion

Israel’s defiance of US pressure

American officials might not like strong Israeli leaders, but they do respect them.

Israeli founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion declares the Independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Source: Knesset.
Israeli founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion declares the Independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Source: Knesset.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

The extended delay of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s invitation to the White House, the threat to reassess U.S.-Israel relations and the emerging White House concern for the future of Israeli democracy, constitute means to intensify pressure on Israel to refrain from any independent military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, freeze Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria and eastern Jerusalem, redivide Jerusalem, retreat to the pre-1967 lines and facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state.  

Intensifying pressure on Israel also aims to deter Israel from sharing with Congress its concerns about the adverse impact of the administration’s policy towards Iran and the Palestinian issue on vital U.S. interests.

The methodical presidential pressure on Israel, which is mostly generated by the State Department, reflects Foggy Bottom’s worldview and policy, which has been systematically wrong on the Middle East.

For example, the State Department opposed the establishment of the Jewish state, contending that Israel would join the Soviet bloc. It embraced Yasser Arafat and the PLO, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. It has played a dominant role in anxiously courting the anti-U.S. Iranian mullahs while pressuring pro-U.S. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and United Arab Emirates.

Israeli response to U.S. pressure

Netanyahu should follow in the footsteps of Israel’s founding fathers—from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion through Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir—who realized that defiance of U.S. pressure is critical to Israel’s national security policy.

While this triggered short term confrontations with the White House, it yielded long term U.S. strategic respect for Israel. These prime ministers recognized that the U.S. prefers allies driven by vision and historic and national security principles, who do not sacrifice their cradle of history, religion and culture on the altar of diplomatic and economic convenience, even when it entails defiance of U.S. pressure.  

In 1948-49, the U.S., Britain and the U.N. threatened Israel with severe economic and diplomatic sanctions to coerce the newly born Jewish state to end “occupation” of areas in the Galilee, coastal plain, the Negev and western Jerusalem; as well as absorb Arab refugees, who had joined in the failed Arab military attempt to annihilate the newly born Jewish state. Ben-Gurion fended off that overwhelming pressure even though Israel only had a population of 650,000 Jews with hardly any military and economic infrastructure.

Ben-Gurion’s steadfastness earned him and Israel long term strategic respect, as evidenced by James McDonald, the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, who wrote in his book My Mission in Israel, 1948-1951, “The more I studied and observed the manner in which [Ben-Gurion] met the burdens placed upon him, the more convinced I became that he was one of the few great statesmen of our day. … The comparison [to Winston Churchill] did not exaggerate the Israeli prime minister’s natural qualities of leadership. … Small in stature, he was big in spirit. … He had unfaltering faith in the future of Israel. … The prime minister had no fear.”

Notwithstanding systematic U.S. pressure, U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation was enhanced dramatically due to the volcanic Middle East and its threats, which are mutual to the U.S. and Israel, as well as the principle-driven pro-U.S. conduct of Israel’s prime ministers and Israel’s unique technological and military capabilities. U.S. strategic cooperation with Israel has also been a derivative of Israel’s growing contribution to the U.S. economy and national security, which in dollar terms exceeds U.S. aid to Israel.

Most Israeli prime ministers demonstrated that historic and national security concerns superseded diplomatic convenience. They understood the difference between short-term popularity and long-term strategic respect. The latter requires defiance of the odds and pressure.

They recognized the fact that repelling U.S. pressure was an integral part of U.S.-Israel relations, which attested to Israel’s effectiveness and reliability as a strategic partner.

They knew that there are no free lunches. A failure to fend off the State Department’s pressure would yield more pressure, coupled with eroded strategic respect and a reduced posture of deterrence, which would embolden enemies. 

They were aware that simultaneously with pressure from the U.S. executive branch, Israel has enjoyed—since 1948—the support of most of the U.S. constituency, and therefore most of the co-equal and co-determining U.S. legislature. They concluded that succumbing to pressure would injure Israel’s stature among its allies on Capitol Hill and the U.S. population.

Milestones of U.S. pressure

During 1948-1955, Ben-Gurion declared independence in defiance of brutal pressure from the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, New York Times and Washington Post, and rebuffed U.S. and global pressure to withdraw to the suicidal 1947 lines of the U.N.’s partition plan.

During 1967-1974, Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir repulsed U.S. pressure to desist from construction of Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem.

In 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor and applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights in defiance of ferocious U.S. pressure followed by a suspension of delivery of critical military systems and joint defense agreements.

In 1982, Begin forthrightly rejected the Reagan Plan, which stipulated Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-1967 ceasefire lines.

During 1983-1992, irrespective of an outrageous smear campaign conducted by the State Department, Shamir expanded the construction of Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria in defiance of the State Department and the White House. Shamir was not liked, but he was highly respected by most of his U.S. critics.

The bottom line

The aforementioned documented facts illustrate that defiance of pressure has enhanced Israel’s posture of deterrence, and therefore minimized regional instability, reducing the prospects of war, advancing U.S. interests and bolstering U.S. strategic appreciation of Israel.

Regardless of State Department pressure, the U.S. is well-aware that on a rainy day it can rely on the performance of Israel—its principle-driven, backboned ally, which refuses to sacrifice long-term historic and national security assets on the altar of short-term diplomatic and economic convenience.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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