In an issue of the New York Times this past week, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy writes about the history of U.S. pressure on Israel.
Halevy’s ostensible purpose is to remind voters that Republican presidents have strong-armed Israeli governments in the past. On its face, this is a rather uncontroversial thesis. Who would possibly deny the fact that Republican presidents have abused Israel over the years? Indeed, Halevy’s list is incomplete, since along with Dwight Eisenhower and both the elder and the younger George Bush who were mentioned in the piece, we should not forget Richard Nixon proposed the first land-for-peace deal with the Rogers plan and then muscled the Israelis during the War of Attrition and after the Yom Kippur War. Ronald Reagan also had his moments of confrontation with Israel over arms sales to Saudi Arabia and especially over Lebanon.
The fallacy here is that Halevy cites this in order to refute Mitt Romney’s charge that President Obama has repeatedly thrown Israel “under the bus.” In doing so he chooses to ignore the many instances of pressure from Democrats. Indeed, just as every Republican occupant of the White House has some blots on his ledger with regard to Israel, the same is true of almost every Democrat dating back to Harry Truman. Yet what’s truly odd about the piece, and causes me to question the judgment not only of the Times editors that chose to publish it but those liberals circulating the article around the Internet today as if it was a damning refutation of Romney’s allegations, is that none of this stuff about past Republicans or Democrats has anything to do with Obama. Based on the tone of the last debate, the president seems quite anxious to demonstrate his pro-Israel bona fides to wavering Jewish voters in Florida and Ohio. Those who care about Israel will judge him on his record, but it mystifies me as to why anyone’s vote would be influenced by unhappy memories of Ike or the Bushes.
As to pressure from Democrats, the instances are every bit as numerous as those coming from the GOP.
Truman may have ordered a vote for partition and recognized Israel on the day of its birth, actions for which he deserves and rightly gets great credit. But he offered no tangible aid to an Israeli cause that was dependent on arms acquired from the Soviet bloc. He also supported efforts to push Israel back to the 1947 partition lines and to take back all of the Palestinian refugees.
John F. Kennedy gets credit for being the first U.S. president to meet an Israeli prime minister (a private visit in a New York hotel with David Ben Gurion rather than an official meeting in the White House) and for being the first president to sell Israel arms. But it is often forgotten that in that meeting with DBG he pushed the Israeli to negotiate about territorial withdrawals (in 1962, nobody, not even a Democratic president thought the borders that would eventually be called the 1967 lines were sacrosanct) and to also consider admitting refugees.
Jimmy Carter’s well-earned reputation of animus for Israel has been based more on his post-presidential behavior than what he did in the White House, but even if we concentrate only on those four years, the record isn’t that pretty. Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem was motivated as much by his fear of Carter’s decision to try to involve the Soviets in the peace process as anything else. Throughout the negotiations at Camp David in 1978 and those for the subsequent peace negotiations for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Carter hammered Menachem Begin and the Israelis at every turn. Carter was sympathetic to the Palestinians and Yasir Arafat, but was only restrained from embracing them by the political costs of such a policy. Republicans who think their record vote in 1980 was based solely on Reagan’s virtues forget that the real reason they did so well was the massive distrust of Carter felt by the pro-Israel community.
Any Republican who denied that Bill Clinton was a friend of Israel would not be telling the truth. But any Democrat who sought to claim that he never tried to pressure the Israelis would be just as much a liar. Clinton didn’t create the Oslo process but he did push hard for the Israelis to ignore Palestinian violations of the accords throughout his two terms. Once Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, the next three years were a non-stop pressure fest as he muscled the Israelis to make further concessions to the Palestinians in the Hebron and Wye Plantation agreements.
What does all this mean as far as making a judgment about the two men currently running for president? It ought to bring to mind the psalmist’s admonition to not place one’s trust in princes since no administration can be said to have a perfect record on Israel. Though George W. Bush was widely thought of as among the best as well as the most fervent supporters of the Jewish state — something he proved repeatedly while in the White House with his ultimate stands on Palestinian terror and his refusal to deal with Yasir Arafat — Halevy is right that there were moments when he was in the wrong and wrongly pressured the Israelis. In particular, his second term seemed more like a rerun of past presidents than his first four years, something that caused me to write in December 2008 that perhaps Israel might be better off with the new President Obama (not my most accurate prediction).
Pointing out past instances of Republican presidents pressuring Israel may discomfit some GOP partisans just as a listing of Democratic bad behavior doesn’t comfort their knee-jerk supporters. But none of this serves as an argument for or against President Obama. No one can credibly claim that he has not repeatedly engaged in spats with Israel and sought to pressure it on borders and settlements. He has also hardened the U.S. position on Jerusalem to a point that goes far beyond the previous stances of both Republicans and Democrats about the city’s status.
There are arguments to be made on behalf of almost every president that I have mentioned, including Bush I and Obama. None except perhaps for Lyndon Johnson or Eisenhower can be said to be even close to being all bad or all good.
That’s why Halevy’s curious diatribe lacks intellectual rigor and is irrelevant to any discussion about the merits of Obama or Romney. Those who claim it to be a definitive statement about this election are either being dishonest or acting as blatant partisans.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/TobinCommentary.