In Defiance of U.S. Pressure – A Test of Leadership


Address by Yoram Ettinger at the 
2nd Annual English Language 
Menachem Begin Memorial Conference
Sunday April 1, 2012

Menachem Begin Heritage Center

Former Israeli Consul General to the US Southwest and expert in 
US-Israel relations Yoram Ettinger addresses English-speakers at 
the 2nd Annual English-language Menachem Begin Memorial 
Conference organized by  Likud Anglos and other organizations.
Thank you very much. When it comes to pressure, leaders in Israel and outside of Israel should realize – it comes with a job. There’s no such thing as being a leader, there’s no such thing as being a father, or a CEO or chairman of a company without being subjected to pressure. And any complaint about pressure does suggest about the lack of leadership quality when it comes to that particular leader. When it comes to pressure – presidential, American pressure has been an integral part of the Israeli-American story since 1948. There has never been an American president who has not attempted to pressure, sometimes even to break the back of the Jewish state. And that is to be expected. Again, it comes with a job.

The challenge of a prime minister is not to avoid pressure, the challenge is to defy pressure.  The challenge of a prime minister is not to make avoidance of pressure a strategy, but make it a tactic. The challenge of a Prime Minister is not change a policy because of pressure, but to stick to policy while bypassing, while deflecting, while defying pressure. And certainly when it comes to the challenge of prime ministers in Israel, the goal should not be to accumulate popularity, but rather to accumulate respect which always comes, always comes, with defiance rather than succumbing to pressure.

Between 1948 and 1992, in the vast majority of confrontations between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents, Israeli prime ministers knew how to say no. There were exceptions, but those were the exceptions, such as Sinai, for instance, in 1957. In direct contradiction to Ben Gurion of 1948-49 and that was a reflection of a giant becoming a normal politician, a normal human being, as Ben Gurion tragically deteriorated towards the 1960s. When it comes to 1992 through 2012, Israeli leaders are yet to master the art or the master the backbone of saying no to American pressure and the fact is that between 1948 an 1992, while in the vast majority of cases beginning with the Ben Gurion in 1948 and through Shamir in 1992, while Israeli Prime Ministers said no and no and no and were rebuked and rebuked and rebuked, the relationship, the scope of strategic and commercial cooperation between the U.S. and Israel surged dramatically. And I suggest, because of defiance of pressure and not in spite of defiance of pressure.

And certainly we have not seen the same attitude from 1992 until today, which is one of the reasons why some people like myself who come to Washington frequently do hear from personalities in Washington who never accepted Prime Minister Shamir’s policies saying very loudly please tell Mr. Shamir we respect him now more than anytime before due to the huge dramatic gap of leadership between that which existed until 1992 and since 1992 in Jerusalem.

When it comes to 1948-92, we start with Ben Gurion, who on the eve of the Declaration of Independence, in fact three days before that, received a personal message form then Secretary of State George Marshall, and the message was very explicit: don’t you dare declare independence, while military embargo is already in place over the entire region, while the British provide military supplies to the Egyptians, Jordanians and the Iraqis. Accompanying this ultimatum, pressure was also in the CIA assessment that should you minister Ben Gurion declare independence then the odds are that you would then lead the Jews to a second holocaust within less than ten years. And when Ben Gurion asked the opinion the opinion of the Israeli military, the assessment he got from Yigael Yadin, the deputy chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in Israel, the chances are at best under the best case scenario 50-50 militarily speaking and Mr. Marshall even persisted in the pressure suggesting that should you ignore the ultimatum, the demand to refrain from declaration of independence we may also consider economic sanctions on the Jewish community in Israel. Mr Ben Gurion was known, it was an absolute no, and the pressure persisted during the war, when the demand was to end occupation of the Negev if Ben Gurion wanted recognition of the so-called occupation of the Galilee and Jaffa, to refrain from annexing the West Jerusalem to Israel to refrain from declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel and to each demand the response was no and no and no. There is an interesting book written by the first ambassador to Israel by James Macdonald, my nation, and in that book the U.S. ambassador recounts his meetings with Mr. Ben Gurion, and the following is a brief quote from this book.

Mr. Ben Gurion told James Macdonald, after he heard and read and read the essence of the series of demands, ultimatums, “Much as Israel desired friendship with the U.S. and full cooperation with it, there are limits beyond which it could not go. Israel could not yield at any point which in its judgment would threaten its independence, its security. The very fact that Israel was a small a state made more necessary the scrupulous defense of its own interest otherwise it would be lost. Ben Gurion warned President Truman,” wrote the Ambassador, Ben Gurion, “warned, warned President Truman and the dep. of state that they would be gravely that the threat or even the use of sanctions would force Israel to yield on issues considered vital to its independence and security. “

When you read that account by the American ambassador and then you go back to contemporary so-called leadership you may assume that one of them, one of them, is Alice in Wonderland.

In 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was faced with Brutal pressure by the Americans. When Mr. Eshkol presented LBJ with the American presidential commitment by President Eisenhower, that should the Egyptians violate the Sinai Agreement, the demilitarization of Sinai from 1957 in return for full Israeli withdrawal, the US committed itself to deploy its military and reinstate the status quo. LBJs response was we cannot find that executive agreement. And when a copy was submitted, LBJ’s response was, I am a tall Texan but without my people who would never agree to send our military and risk engagement in an original war in the Middle East, without that I’m a short President. And at one point he even referred to the commitment by Eisenhower, that “it ain’t worth a solitary dime.” And he was right, because anyone who takes poli-sci 101 knows that a presidential commitment does not commit the USA. It’s only a treaty which commits the USA a presidential commitment is given to weak Prime Ministers who want to justify weakness by waiving to a public which does not know much about poli-sci 101 of American politics, telling them I’ve brought you a solid agreement. That was the case when Pres. Ford wrote a piece of paper to Rabin that when it comes to the Golan, the US would then take into consideration vital security interests, which again, ‘ain’t worth a single solitary dime.’ and Jimmy Carter was right when he was presented with that paper saying it hardly committed Ford, it certainly doesn’t commit anyone who succeeded him in the White House.

But in any case, Prime Minister Eshkol, when he was told by LBJ, when he was warned by LBJ, “should you act alone, you will remain alone” and when the head of the Mossad here in Israel was told by the American embassy no way that we’re going to support if you act preemptively against Egypt, he made up his mind. And as they say the rest is history. And moreover when the war was over and the Prime Minister was told by the President of the US don’t you dare annex east Jerusalem and don’t you dare build there, the decision was to build there what we know today as Ramat Eshkol and certainly annexation took place, which was a repeat of what Ben Gurion did in 1949-50, when in defiance of US and Global pressure, not only did he annex West Jerusalem, but he also declared it the capital of Israel and brought of thousands of olim [Jewish immigrants] to Jerusalem and built purposely on the Green Line, Talpiyot of today. And we know the story of Golda Meir when she was handed, or she was told, that there is a Rogers Plan, basically the [pre-]67 lines, repartitioning of Jerusalem and her response was giving the green light for the construction of Gilo and Ramot and French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev. It did cost her a few months of some very bad editorials and she was not invited to stay in the Blair House and President Nixon was very upset with her. But in the long run, her stature zoomed upward. It catapulted because of her defiance of pressure and certainly the proof is in the pudding and today we have some 200,000 Jews in those neighborhoods because a leader who was a genuine leader knew that it comes with a job and it requires, it, pressure, requires to say no.

And then obviously comes the chapter of Prime Minister Begin, Prime Minister Begin who in 1981 defied American pressure and ordered the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, he didn’t only defy American pressure, he defied Mossad pressure, he defied IDF Intelligence pressure, he defied the pressure from his own advisor on national security, he defied the pressure by the former defense minister and then the deputy defense minister he defied the pressure of the chairman of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, he defied the pressure of the opposition leader who then went as far as leaking the information of the pending operation in order to avert such an operation. He defied the pressure of the entire world and the vast, vast majority of Israeli movers and shakers. And certainly the esteem only catapulted, just as it was with Ben Gurion. And how maybe sad, or how fateful it is that the two archrivals Ben Gurion and Begin were so similar and were so unique when it comes to displaying qualities of leadership.

When the 1948-49 war was over, John Foster Dulles, who was never a friend of Israel, and that’s [considering him a friend] is only under the most delusional of circumstances, calling him [merely] not a friend of Israel. But Dulles, when he summed up the 1948-49 chapter, he said we have to reassess our position in the Middle East, we vastly overstated Arab power, we gravely underestimated Jewish power, we have to rethink our Middle Eastern policy, which was a result of an Israeli prime minister defying an American president.

When it comes to Begin the nuclear reactor was not the only case of defiance of American pressure, that was the case of the Reagan plan of 1982, when Mr. Begin summoned the American ambassador and literally threw the sealed envelope at the lap of the American ambassador telling him off and again it did not endear Mr. Begin to the American presidents, but certainly it enhanced the respect towards the Israeli Prime Minister. That was also the case of Mr. Begin deciding to bomb the PLO headquarters in Beirut before the war in Lebanon, which generated vicious condemnations by the US, especially by the way, by then Vice President Bush (the 41st) who has never been a friend, probably to my mind he and Jim Baker were probably the two worst executives in US-Israel recent history. That was the case with the law of the Golan, basically annexing the Golan to the Jewish state, which was opposed by the US administration and that was also the case when it came to the US demand to enable Jerusalem Arabs to vote in future autonomy elections – to each one the response was – absolute no.

The same attitude, by the way, took place during the peace negotiations with Egypt. At the last moment both in ’77 as well as in ’79, there was always something which the Americans either inserted or deleted. First was the case of the deletion – relating to the simple word autonomy, which was “administrative autonomy” and somehow the “administrative” adjective was deleted from all the documentation. Mr. Begin simply made it very clear that unless you want to end the talks and avert the possibility of a ceremony, then you have to reinstate, reintroduce the adjective “administrative” every time the word autonomy appears. And in ’79 when at the last minute Mr. Carter asked Mr. Begin to consider the introduction of Jerusalem into the overall peace agreement and Mr. Begin suggested that all he needed was five minutes and Carter did not panic and said ‘no you can take your time’ – and Mr. Begin explained, ‘all I need is five minutes to pack and get on the plane and return to Israel’ and obviously Jerusalem was not inserted into this agreement.

I would like to share with you, which was Begin’s statement made in Dec. 1981, Dec. 20th 1981, a statement which he read to the American Ambassador. Later, he read it publically, and I would like to read it here:

Three times during the past six months, the U.S. Government has "punished"  Israel.

On June 7, we destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. . . . [O]ur action was an act of salvation, an act of national self-defense in the most lofty sense of the concept. We saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, including tens of thousands of children.

Nonetheless, you announced that you were punishing us - and you left unfilled a signed and sealed contract that included specific dates for the supply of (war) planes.

Not long after, in a defensive act - after a slaughter was committed against our people leaving three dead . . . we bombed the PLO headquarters in 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.” We always make efforts to avoid hitting civilian populations, but sometimes it is unavoidable - as was the case in [Beirut].

We sometimes risk the lives of our soldiers to avoid civilian casualties. Nonetheless, you punished us: you suspended delivery of F-15 planes. A week ago . . . the Knesset passed on all three readings . . . the “Golan Heights Law.” Now you once again declare that you are punishing Israel. 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. . . You have announced that you are suspending consultations on the implementation of the memorandum of understanding on strategic cooperation, and that your return to these consultations in the future will depend on progress achieved in the autonomy talks and on the situation in Lebanon.

You want to make Israel a hostage of the memorandum of understanding.

I regard your announcement suspending the consultations on the memorandum of as the abrogation (by you) of the memorandum. No “sword of Damocles” is going to hang over our head. So we duly take note of the fact that you have abrogated the Memorandum of Understanding.

The people of Israel has lived 3,700 years without a memorandum of understanding with America - and it will continue to live for another 3,700. . .

We will not agree that you should demand of us to allow the Arabs of East Jerusalem to take part in the autonomy elections - and threaten us that if we don't consent you will suspend the memorandum.

You have imposed upon us financial punishments - and have (thereby) violated the word of the President. When Secretary Haig was here he read from a written document the words of President Reagan that you would purchase 200 million dollars worth of Israel arms and other equipment. Now you say it will not do so.

. . .

You cancelled an additional 100 million dollars. What did you want to do - to "hit us in our pocket"?

Now I understand why the whole great effort in the Senate to obtain a majority for the arms deal with Saudi Arabia was accompanied by an ugly campaign of anti-Semitism.

. . .

No one will frighten the great and free Jewish community of the U.S., no one will succeed in cowing them with anti-Semitic propaganda. They will stand by our side. This is the land of their forefathers - and they have a right and a duty to support it.

Some say we must “rescind” the law passed by the Knesset. To “rescind” is a concept from the days of the Inquisition. 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.

If it were up to me (alone) I would say we should not rescind the law. But as far as I can judge there is in fact no one on earth who can persuade the Knesset to rescind the law which it passed by a two-thirds majority.[1]

When you read such a statement by Mr. Begin, you realize what a striking gap there is between Prime Ministers of 1948-92 and those who succeeded them from 1992 to this very today.

Without getting into an elaborate summary, but the assumption that an American president can pressure Israel reflects unawareness not only of the American system, but of the state of mind of the American public, the state of mind of the American Congress, who again and again have demonstrated their capability not only to oppose a president but also to rescind policies of a president, to switch over polices of a president, to change them dramatically, and when it comes to Israel, the American Congress and the American people, have always been a bastion of support.

To conclude this brief presentation, I would like to share with you a few examples of what Congress can do: When it came to the War of Vietnam, it was not a president who concluded that war. it was Congress. When it came to an end of American military involvement in Nicaragua and Angola it was Congress. When it came to breaking the back of the white regime in South Africa, it was Congress over President Reagan. When it came to breaking the back of the USSR through Jackson-Vanick, it was Congress over opposition of the President and, I ashamed to say it, of Jerusalem, which did not initially like Jackson-Vanick as well. When it came to the castration, unfortunately of the U.S. intelligence community, it was the American Congress, which castrated American intelligence over the opposition of the American president. Every single year there are many military systems which are either introduced or eliminated from the defense industries through the decision of the American Congress in defiance of an American President. And when it comes to Israel – 1991 when the Gulf War was over, Israel submitted a request for special financial assistance to cover the cost of a war where Israel agreed to restrain itself in response to an American request. The reaction to the request for assistance by Bush and Baker was absolutely zero. So Israel received $650 million because Congress wanted it. And when Israel said ‘thank you but here is the bill, it’s not enough,’ Congress said, ‘we don’t have money, how about the F15s, the F16s, the tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers which are currently deployed in Europe, but there is no need for them because of the end of the Cold War?’ Once again bush and baker opposed it. So we received, F15s and F16s, etc. to the tune of $700 million. And there were a series of such amendments to the American law, each one of them in defiance of American presidents and not because of American presidents.

Which leads me to two quotes which shed light on the essence of US Israel relations on the one hand and with respect to pressure. When Sen. George Mitchell was the majority leader, a well known Israeli whom I don’t want to embarrass came to Washington and met him during the very tense days of the battle over the $10 Billion loan guarantees. Senator Mitchell at that particular point was about to join the battle on our side, until then he was genuinely busy as Majority leader with a budget battle in Washington. As a result he asked me to bring that particular Israeli to his office to discuss it. After my own introduction which laid out the realities that we can’t afford to have the President and Secretary of State call the shots on the loan guarantees, and we must have Congress which initiated the bill of $10 billion, to be in charge of the agreement. 

The distinguished Israeli who was in the room did not spare any effort to so called ‘rectify the damage’ which was done to the reputation of the president which was done to the president and the secretary of state, by me. For ten minutes he couldn’t stop praising their ingenuity and their loyalty to US-Israel relations and their well meaning behavior towards Israel.

After ten minutes, the Senator, who realized that as well intentioned as he was, Israel was not ready for that for all the wrong reasons and he said ‘sir I have another meeting if I were to sum up your presentation, - while you may not like the president and secretary of state being in charge of it, which means you build one home and we stop the loan guarantees, you mean while you don’t like it you’re not going to fight it.’ And the response was thumbs up. At which point we got up, and I was shaken, and this is an understatement because I had assumed that this was the day that we are going to receive the ten billion, because the majority leader was a vote sawyer not just a single vote. and when the Israeli personality left the office, Sen. Mitchell came over and said “Yoram, didn’t you brief our distinguished guest about American politics, letting him know that we are not a monarchy, that Congress is equal in power, co-determining in power, a co-equal power to the president? Have a nice day, Yoram.” And that was the end of Sen. Mitchell’s involvement in the ten billion dollar loan guarantees.

The second quote which I would like to share with has to do with Prime Minister Shamir. Prime Minister Shamir, as we know, was never greeted with approval or acceptance when it comes to policy or ideology in Washington. Not by Reagan and certainly not by his successor Bush 41. One of the visits during the bush baker administration by Shamir was concluded with a meeting in the office of George Mitchell, along with the Minority leader Bob dole, to put it mildly, not a friend of Israel. And once again it was an exchange with no agreement between the two sides. however, with civility and even with smiles. When the conversation was over, the exchange was over, as we departed, Bob Dole came over and said “Mr. Shamir, do you know why the majority leader and I respect you, while we do not agree with you?” Mr. Shamir looked up, because of the difference in size between the two of them, and said “No, why is that?” And Bob Dole, again, not a friend of Israel, said “Mr. Prime Minister, because you are tough.” And I think this is the key word that unfortunately, Israeli leaders do not understand. Yes, some of them by talking the talk, but none of them at least in my mind, since 1992, by walking the walk. The US is not seeking a punching bag as an ally in the Middle East, the US is seeking, in the words of some Texans, from my time in Texas, they seek an Israel which is led by the meanest SOB in the valley, because when you have the meanest SOB in the valley you know on a rainy day you can count on that person. I’m not sure that the caliber of leaders since 1992 justifies such expectations.

Thank you very much.

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