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US pressure: A test of American realism and Israeli leadership

Genuine leaders are ready to forgo frivolous popularity, while enhancing durable respect.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House in Washington, D.C., Aug. 27, 2021. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House in Washington, D.C., Aug. 27, 2021. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken—the chief architect of President Joe Biden’s foreign and national security policy—is pressuring Israel to embrace his (classic U.S. State Department) policies on the rogue regime of Iran’s ayatollahs and on the Palestinian issue.

Irrespective of the systematic track record of Iran’s ayatollahs—since their 1978-79 ascension to power with the active support of the State Department and the CIA—Secretary Blinken is leaning on Israel to accept the mindset that the ayatollahs are amenable to peaceful coexistence with the neighboring Sunni Arab regimes; ready to abandon their core, fanatic, imperialistic vision; and refrain from regional and global terrorism and war, in exchange for generous financial and diplomatic benefits. Blinken considers Iran’s ayatollahs to be constructive partners for negotiation, worthy of waiving the U.S. military option, which he believes should be superseded by diplomacy.

Irrespective of the systematic Palestinian track record and the Arab walk (not talk!) on the Palestinian issue, Blinken genuinely believes that the Palestinian issue is a core cause of Middle East turbulence, a crown jewel of Arab policy-making and the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Therefore, he considers the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) a prerequisite to peace. Blinken is urging Israel to retreat to the 1949 ceasefire lines, which were labeled “Auschwitz Lines” by Abba Eban, Israel’s very dovish foreign minister.

According to Blinken’s roadmap—which ignores the impact of the proposed Palestinian state on U.S. interests—Israel should revert to an 8-15 mile sliver along the Mediterranean, overshadowed by the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, in the stormy, unpredictable, violent, intolerant Middle East, which has yet to experience democracy and intra-Arab and intra-Muslim peaceful coexistence.

Blinken takes lightly the frustrating, well-documented track records of Iran’s ayatollahs and the Palestinians while highlighting more palatable but totally speculative future behavior. He ignores the fact that the land-for-peace theory has yielded a land-for-terror reality, as evidenced by the outcome of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2005 Gaza disengagement. The Palestinian land-for-terror reality also plagued Jordan from 1968 to 1970, Lebanon from 1970 to 1983, and Kuwait in 1990.

U.S. pressure on Israel: A track record

Is U.S. pressure on Israel consistent with Middle East reality?

Does U.S. pressure on Israel advance U.S. interests and the pursuit of peace?

Can Israel afford to defy U.S. pressure to refrain from critical, independent national security actions (e.g., in the face of the clear and present Iranian threat ), and to withdraw from land which is historically and militarily critical to the survival of the Jewish state?

A well-documented 1948 to 2016 track record of U.S. presidential pressure of Israel demonstrates that U.S. pressure was driven by the worldview of the State Department, which has systematically misread the Middle East (e.g., the stabbing in the back of the Shah of Iran, “The U.S. Policeman of the Gulf,” while embracing Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat). The U.S. pressure on Israel forced the Arabs/Palestinians to outflank the United States from the radical side, intensified Palestinian terrorism, undermined American interests and failed to advance the cause of peace.

For example:

In 1948, the State Department—along with the Pentagon, the CIA, The New York Times and The Washington Post—led the diplomatic, military (embargo) and economic pressure on David Ben-Gurion (one of Israel’s founding fathers) to refrain from declaring independence and accept a U.N. Trusteeship. The State Department and the CIA contended that Israel would be an ally of the Soviet bloc, would be slaughtered by the Arabs (“a second Holocaust in less than 10 years”) and would undermine U.S.-Arab relations, risking American access to Persian Gulf oil.

During and following Israel’s 1948/49 War of Independence, the United States pressured Ben Gurion to retreat from “occupied land” in the Galilee, Negev, the coastal plain and Western Jerusalem, accept the internationalization of Jerusalem and absorb 75,000 Palestinian refugees (who partook in the Arab war on Israel).

It was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s defiance of U.S. pressure that transformed Israel from a burden to a unique strategic ally of the United States. In 1950, Gen. Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended that Israel should be considered a major strategic ally due to its military performance. The recommendation was dismissed outright by the State Department and the White House.

In 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, when a concerted Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian military force was about to invade Israel, President Johnson warned Prime Minister Eshkol against a preemptive strike: “If you act alone, you shall remain alone.”

However, Eshkol repulsed that U.S. pressure and preempted the Soviet-backed Arab military assault, which aimed to annihilate Israel and facilitate a pro-Soviet Egyptian hegemony of the Arab world and topple the pro-U.S. Arab oil-producing regimes, at a time when the United States was heavily dependent upon the importation of Persian Gulf oil. Israel’s defiance of U.S. pressure resulted in the devastation of Egypt’s military and spared the United States a horrifying national security and economic setback. It bolstered the stability of the highly-vulnerable pro-U.S. Arab regimes, and denied the USSR a dramatic regional and global bonanza.

It was Prime Minister Eshkol’s defiance of U.S. pressure that transformed Israel from a supplicant to a unique force-multiplier for the United States, fulfilling the role of the largest U.S. aircraft carrier, without a single U.S. soldier on board, deployed in a critical region of the world. This has spared the United States the mega-billion-dollar necessity of manufacturing, deploying and maintaining a few more real aircraft carriers and a few ground divisions in the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean.

In 1981, the United States brutally pressured Prime Minister Menachem Begin against bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor. He ignored the pressure, and the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor spared the United States a traumatic 1990-91 confrontation with a nuclear Saddam Hussein. The Begin Preemptive Doctrine was adopted in 2007 by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ordered the bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor—with the acquiescence of the United States—thus sparing the world the plague of a nuclearized civil war in Syria.

In 1981, Prime Minister Begin applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights—located on the trilateral border of Israel, Syria and Jordan—irrespective of brutal U.S. pressure, which led to the suspension of a vital U.S.-Israel defense cooperation agreement. However, Israel’s control of the Golan Heights has benefited the United States, by playing a key role in constraining the maneuverability of Iran, Russia, Syria and Islamic terrorists. It also buttresses the pro-U.S. Hashemite regime in Jordan.

In 1989-1992, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was targeted by a campaign of slanderous pressure by the State Department and the White House, aimed at pushing Israel back to the pre-1967 lines. Had Shamir bowed to the pressure, retreating from the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, he would have downgraded Israel from a U.S. national security asset to a national security liability.

Israel would have been demoted from credible “life-insurance agent” for the pro-U.S. Arab regimes into a “life-support” case, fully dependent upon the U.S. military. It would have demolished Israel’s posture of deterrence, which has been a critical line of defense for Jordan’s Hashemite regime. It has prevented an anti-U.S. avalanche from consuming the pro-U.S. Arab regimes, and dramatic tailwind for regional and global Islamic terrorism.

The bottom line

U.S. pressure has been a leadership-litmus test for Israeli prime ministers, whose challenge has been to overcome—not to avoid—pressure, while adhering to core ideology and strategic goals, refraining from the sacrifice of deeply-rooted ideology and long-term national security on the altar of short-term, tenuous convenience. Genuine leaders are ready to forgo frivolous popularity while enhancing durable respect.

On a rainy day, the United States prefers a defiant, rather than a vacillating, Israel on its side. At the end of a 1991 meeting between Prime Minister Shamir and Senate majority and minority leaders Sen. George Mitchell and Bob Dole, which I attended, the latter (who was generally critical of Israel) said: “Mr. Prime Minister, do you know why the Majority Leader and I absolutely disagree with you, but immensely respect you? Because you’re tough!”

Simultaneously with the systematic 1948-2016 presidential pressure, and occasional suspension of the delivery of vital military systems, the mutually-beneficial U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation has expanded in a staggering manner. It expanded due to the systematic support of the Jewish state by most Americans and their representatives in the House and Senate, as well as Israel’s exceptional reliability and unique technological and military effectiveness, along with the growing realization that Israeli contributions to the United States outweigh foreign aid to Israel.

Will Biden learn from past mistakes, by avoiding self-defeating pressure on his most reliable, effective, democratic and unconditional ally, the Jewish state?

Will Prime Minister Naftali Bennett follow in the footsteps of prime ministers Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Golda Meir, Begin and Shamir, who did not seek popularity and convenience, defied U.S. pressure and thus earned long term geostrategic esteem, and catapulted Israel’s national security and the mutually beneficial U.S.-Israel cooperation to unprecedented heights?

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.

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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