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Sunday, September 07, 2008

When Reagan met Begin

Until George W. Bush took over the White House and made some very strongly pro-Israel statements, particularly in the second half of his first term, the man who was known as the 'most pro-Israel President' of the United States was probably Ronald Reagan. Yehuda Avner, who was an adviser to Begin, reports that Begin nearly got Reagan to sign on a real strategic alliance with Israel. He was thwarted by then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, a m'shumad (apostate) whose hatred of Israel was so visceral that he continues to haunt the America-Israel relationship from his grave. It was Weinberger who wrote the infamous memo that convinced a Federal judge to ignore Jonathan Pollard's plea bargain with the government and sentence him to life in prison for spying on behalf of America's friend, a sentence far out of proportion to his crime. It was Weinberger who convinced several American Presidents not to pardon Pollard every time the subject arose. And it was Weinberger who - in 1981, four years before Pollard - saw to it that Ronald Reagan's desire for a strategic alliance with Israel would not be carried out.
Seating himself at the table's center, facing the prime minister, Reagan extracted another pack of cards, and in the practiced style of a late-night talk show host, suavely welcomed Begin and his entourage (which included defense minister Ariel Sharon), describing Israel as "a strategic asset," and inviting the premier to make any comments he wished.

Begin obliged, delving into a tour d'horizon, and ending with the cautiously chosen words: "You, Mr. President [he did not think it proper to call him by his first name in this setting], kindly referred to my country just now as a strategic asset to yours. While that, certainly, has a positive ring to it I find it, nevertheless, a little patronizing. Given the bipolar world in which we live - democracy versus communism - the cherished values we share and our confluence of interests on so many fundamental issues, might I suggest the time has come to publicly acknowledge that Israel is not just a strategic asset, but a strategic ally."

SOME AROUND the table looked at the premier in a faintly disconcerted manner. Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, a rather diminutive man with sleek black hair and of vague Jewish origin, was actually frowning. But the president continued to give the premier his fullest attention, and he chuckled when Begin jocularly remarked: "You know, Mr. President, I sometimes get the impression that our relationship is a little like Heinrich Heine's famous couplet about the Berlin bourgeoisie gentleman who implores his mistress not to acknowledge him in public in that city's most fashionable boulevard, begging her: 'Greet me not Unter den Linden,' I fear there are some who would say much the same to us."

On all sides American faces seemed either bemused or irritated, but not the president's. He looked at the prime minister with respect, and chortled, "I'd be proud to acknowledge you in public anywhere, any time."

"Certainly, in this alliance," continued Begin, "Israel is very much the junior partner, but a partner we are. And I dare say" - a faint smile curled his lips and his voice sank into understatement - "over the decades Israel has done a thing or two which might have contributed to the American strategic interest in our region. And much as we deeply appreciate the military and economic aid we receive, I venture to suggest it is not an entirely one-way street - not a charity, so to speak."

There, he had said it; he had spelled it out. No other Israeli premier had quite put it that way before - that Israel was not merely a receiver but also a giver. And as he spoke he noted that Reagan was nodding in agreement. The president looked to his right and to his left, invited discussion, but since most everyone seemed taciturn Begin seized the moment and said: "Might I suggest, Mr. President, that consideration be given to an agreed document on this matter - on the strategic relationship between our two countries."

Weinberger's cold gray eyes glared back at him, and he grunted some sort of reservation, but secretary of state Alexander Haig seemed eminently amenable.

"What the prime minister proposes sounds like a good idea to me," said the president. "Let's look into it."

Menachem Begin sat up abruptly; energy coursed through him. He had been waiting for this moment for a long time, the moment when the United States of America would grant the State of Israel the status of a full-fledged strategic ally. So, with alacrity he said, "With your permission, Mr. President, may I call on defense minister Sharon to share with you and your colleagues a number of ideas which might give expression to this concept?"

"By all means," said Reagan. "Go ahead."
Read the whole thing.

This story is a lesson in the limits of Presidential power - a lesson I learned as a college student more than thirty years ago. A President can give all the orders he wants but there's no assurance they will be carried out.

But there's another lesson here and it's a lesson from which Jews have suffered throughout our history. Those who would destroy us come from among us. With the current Prime Minister about to be indicted for bribery and elections apparently in the offing, it's a lesson we cannot afford to forget.


At 6:28 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Agreed. With Tizpi Livni in the lead in the Kadima leadership race, its a sign Israel's troubles are by no means over.


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