In October 1998, on the eve of the Wye Plantation Summit, Democratic leaders of the US House of Representatives told Secretary of State, Madelyn Albright: “Should President Clinton decide to pressure Israel, he would face a Democratic-Republican opposition.” In September 1982, Prime Minister Begin rejected the Reagan Plan – which called for an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria – by throwing the official envelope at the lap of the US Ambassador, declaring: “Israel is not a Banana Republic.” In spite of – and probably due to – the blunt rejection, the Reagan era enhanced US-Israel strategic relations in an unprecedented manner.
The assumption that an Israeli Prime Minister cannot face a US presidential pressure is as unfounded as the assumption that a US-Israel disagreement over the Arab-Israeli conflict should necessarily undermine vital Israeli interests.
Such assumptions reflect miscomprehension of the structure of the US government and the American state of mind. They are inconsistent with the larger context of US-Israel ties, recent precedents and global developments, which have improved understanding of Israel’s security predicaments. These assumptions distort the meaning of leadership.
The US President is strong but not almighty. The US Congress is the most genuine representation of the American People, which appreciates patriotism, tradition, political incorrectness and walking against the grain, considering the Jewish State a domestic-shared-value issue and not just a matter of foreign policy. The House and the Senate – which possess the Power of the Purse – constitute a sustained source of support for the Jewish State, which is equal in power to the President. The loyalty of Democratic and Republican legislators is primarily to their constituents, to the principles of Separation of Powers, Checks and Balance and the Independence of the Legislature, rather than to the President. Their political life expectancy is different than the political life expectancy of the President. House Members and Senators have the power to suspend, cut, expand or initiate budgets and policies. During 1991-2, Congress appropriated Israel – in defiance of the brutal opposition by Bush/Baker – a $650MN emergency assistance, a $700MN transfer of military systems, in addition to the upgrading of the port of Haifa for the use of the 6th Fleet and other forms of strategic cooperation. Congress aborted an attempt by Bush/Baker to cut foreign aid to Israel, to link foreign aid to settlement activity. Capitol Hill introduced – despite harsh opposition by Bush/Baker – $10BN loan guarantees for the absorption of Soviet Jewry. If Israel would have followed then Majority Leader George Mitchell’s advice (“The US is not a monarchy, and the President is not a king”), Bush/Baker would not have been successful in delaying the approval of the loan guarantees.
Until 1992, all Israeli Prime Ministers viewed both Chambers of Congress as the focus of forging US-Israel relations. Since 1992, all Israeli Prime Ministers have regarded the US Legislature as a “Support Actor”, secondary to the Executive, thus undermining vital Israeli interests.
US-Israel special relations have not evolved around the Arab-Israeli conflict axis. They have evolved around the trilateral axis of shared values, mutual threats and joint interests. Thus, Congress (always) and the President (usually) have not allowed disagreements over the narrower Arab-Israeli context to cloud, or to undermine the benefits, derived from the larger historical, regional and global bilateral context. Therefore, strategic memoranda of understanding were concluded in 1981, 1983 and 1988, in spite of the rough US-Israel confrontation and the US military embargo following the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, irrespective of the blunt 1982 rejection of the Reagan Plan and independent of the severe bilateral tension surrounding the 1982 War against the PLO in Lebanon and the First Intifadah, which erupted in December 1987. The memoranda were concluded due to Israel’s unique contribution to deterrence of radical anti-US Arab regimes, to the stability of weak pro-US Arab regimes, to the war on Islamic terrorism, to the containment of Soviet penetration to the Middle East, to the enhancement of US intelligence and missile defense, to the upgrading of US defense and commercial industries and to he expansion of US employment and exports.
The identification, by Americans, with Israel’s security predicament has steadily grown since 9/11, since the daily reports on US casualties, caused by Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and since the intensification of the Islamic threat to the mainland of Europe and the US.
A genuine leadership requires withstanding pressure, in order to attain strategic goals/vision. On the other hand, avoiding pressure usually leads to relinquishing strategic goals/vision. Fending off pressure may allow for altered tactics, but never for altered strategy/goal/vision. Ben Gurion, Golda, Begin and Shamir realized that repelling presidential pressure tended to damage their popularity and to cause short-term diplomatic, political, economic and defense cost. However, they were not concerned with personal popularity and immediate national convenience; they were focused on the long-term strategy/goal/vision of the Jewish State.
During 1948-1992, all Israeli Prime Ministers tended to decline US imposed prescriptions to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and have thus advanced US-Israel strategic relations. Since 1992, all Israeli Prime Ministers have used the concern for US pressure, as an excuse to retreat from strategy/vision, and have thus undermined Israel’s strategic posture in Washington and in the Middle East. Will the outcome of the February 10, 2009 Israeli election resurrect the pre-1992 Jerusalem state of mind?