From the Archive: At the G20 summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy commiserated with President Barack Obama about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Sarkozy called a â€œliar,â€ prompting Obama to say: â€œYouâ€™re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.â€ But struggling with Israeli leaders is not new, Morgan Strong reported.
By Morgan Strong (Originally published on May 31, 2010)
The USS Liberty
At the end of a news conference on April 13, 2010, President Barack Obama made the seemingly obvious point that the continuing Middle East conflict â€“ pitting Israel against its Arab neighbors â€“ will end up â€œcosting us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.â€
Obamaâ€™s remark followed a similar comment by Gen. David Petraeus on March 16, 2010, linking the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the challenges that U.S. troops face in the region.
â€œThe conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,â€ Petraeus said. â€œArab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.
â€œMeanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.â€
The truth behind what Obama and Petraeus said is self-evident to anyone who has spent time observing the Middle East for the past six decades. Even the staunchly pro-Israeli Bush administration made similar observations.
Three years ago in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice termed the Israeli/Palestinian peace process of â€œstrategic interestâ€ to the United States and expressed empathy for the beleaguered Palestinian people.
â€œThe prolonged experience of deprivation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people,â€ Rice said, referring to acts of Palestinian violence.
But the recent comments by Obama and Petraeus aroused alarm among some Israeli supporters who reject any suggestion that Israelâ€™s harsh treatment of Palestinians might be a factor in the anti-Americanism surging through the Islamic world.
After Petraeusâ€™s comment, the pro-Israeli Anti-Defamation League said linking the Palestinian plight and Muslim anger was â€œdangerous and counterproductive.â€
â€œGen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and blaming extremist activities on the absence of peace and the perceived U.S. favoritism for Israel,â€ ADL national director Abraham Foxman said.
However, the U.S. governmentâ€™s widespread (though often unstated) recognition of the truth behind Petraeusâ€™s comment has colored how the Obama administration has reacted to the intransigence of Israelâ€™s Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Petraeus later tried to wiggle out of his comment, noting that it was part of his prepared testimony to a congressional committee and that he did not actually speak the words.)
The U.S. government realizes how much it has done on Israelâ€™s behalf, even to the extent of making Americans the targets of Islamic terrorism such as the 9/11 attacks (as the 9/11 Commission discovered but played down) and sacrificing the lives of thousands of U.S. troops fighting in Middle East conflicts.
That was the backdrop for President Obamaâ€™s outrage over the decision of the Netanyahu government to continue building Jewish housing in Arab East Jerusalem despite the fact that the move complicated U.S. peace initiatives and was announced as Vice President Joe Biden arrived to reaffirm American support for Israel.
However, another little-acknowledged truth about the U.S.-Israeli relationship is that Israeli leaders have frequently manipulated and misled American presidents out of a confidence that U.S. politicians deeply fear the political fallout from any public battle with Israel.
Given that history, few analysts who have followed the arc of U.S.-Israeli relations since Israelâ€™s founding in 1948 believe that the Israeli government is likely to retreat very much in its current confrontation with President Obama.
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower was a strong supporter of the fledgling Jewish state and had supplied Israel with advanced U.S. weaponry. Yet, despite Eisenhowerâ€™s generosity and good intentions, Israel sided with the British and French in 1956 in a conspiracy against him.
Israeli leaders joined a secret arrangement that involved Israel invading Egyptâ€™s Sinai, which then allowed France and Great Britain to introduce their own forces and reclaim control of the Suez Canal. In reaction to the invasion, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene on the side of Egypt by sending ground troops. With Cold War tensions already stretched thin by the crises in Hungary and elsewhere, Eisenhower faced the possibility of a showdown between nuclear-armed adversaries.
Eisenhower demanded that the Israeli-spearheaded invasion of the Sinai be stopped, and he brought financial and political pressures to bear on Great Britain and France.
A ceasefire soon was declared, and the British and French departed, but the Israelis dragged their heels. Eisenhower finally presented Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with an ultimatum, a threat to cut off all U.S. aid. Finally, in March 1957, the Israelis withdrew. [For details, see Eisenhower and Israelby Isaac Alteras]
David Ben-Gurion, Israelâ€™s first prime minister
Secret Nukes and JFK
Even as it backed down in the Sinai, Israel was involved in another monumental deception, a plan for building its own nuclear arsenal.
In 1956, Israel had concluded an agreement with France to build a nuclear reactor in the Negev desert. Israel also signed a secret agreement with France to build an adjacent plutonium reprocessing plant.
Israel began constructing its nuclear plant in 1958. However, French President Charles de Gaulle was worried about nuclear weapons destabilizing the Middle East and insisted that Israel not develop a nuclear bomb from the plutonium processing plant. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion assured de Gaulle that the processing plant was for peaceful purposes only.
After John F. Kennedy became President, he also wrote to Ben-Gurion explicitly calling on Israel not to join the nuclear-weapons club, drawing another pledge from Ben-Gurion that Israel had no such intention.
Nevertheless, Kennedy continued to press, forcing the Israelis to let U.S. scientists inspect the nuclear reactor at Dimona. But the Israelis first built a fake control room while bricking up and otherwise disguising parts of the building that housed the plutonium processing plant.
In return for allowing inspectors into Dimona, Ben-Gurion also demanded that the United States sell Hawk surface-to-air missiles to the Israeli military. Kennedy agreed to the sale as a show of good faith. Subsequently, however, the CIA got wind of the Dimona deception and leaked to the press that Israel was secretly building a nuclear bomb.
After Kennedyâ€™s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson also grew concerned over Israelâ€™s acquiring nuclear weapons. He asked then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Eshkol assured Johnson that Israel was studying the matter and would sign the treaty in due course. However, Israel has never signed the treaty and never has admitted that it developed nuclear weapons. [For details, See Israel and The Bomb by Avner Cohen.]
As Israel grew more sophisticated â€“ and more confident â€“ in its dealings with U.S. presidents, it also sought to secure U.S. military assistance by exaggerating its vulnerability to Arab attacks.
One such case occurred after the Egyptians closed off the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel in May 1967, denying the country its only access to the Red Sea. Israel threatened military action against Egypt if it did not re-open the Gulf.
Israel then asked President Johnson for military assistance in the event war broke out against the Egyptians. Johnson directed Richard Helms, the newly appointed head of the CIA to evaluate Israelâ€™s military capability in the event of war against the surrounding Arab states.
On May 26, 1967, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban met with Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and CIA Director Helms. Eban presented a Mossad estimate of the capability of the Arab armies, claiming that Israel was seriously outgunned by the Arab armies which had been supplied with advanced Soviet weaponry.
Israel believed that, owing to its special relationship with the United States, the Mossad intelligence assessment would be taken at face value.
However, Helms was asked to present the CIA estimate of the Arabsâ€™ military capabilities versus the Israeli army. The CIAâ€™s analysts concluded that Israel could â€œdefend successfully against simultaneous Arab attacks on all fronts, or hold on any three fronts while mounting a successful major offensive on the fourth.â€ [See â€œC.I.A. Analysis of the 1967 Arab Israeli War,â€ Center for the Study of Intelligence.]
â€œWe do not believe that the Israeli appreciation was a serious estimate of the sort they would submit to their own high officials,â€ the CIA report said. â€œIt is probably a gambit intended to influence the U.S. to provide military supplies, make more public commitments to Israel, to approve Israeli military initiatives, and put more pressure on Egyptian President Nasser.â€ [See A Look Over My Shoulder by Richard Helms.]
The CIA report stated further that the Soviet Union would probably not interfere militarily on behalf of the Arab states and that Israel would defeat the combined Arab armies in a matter of days. As a consequence, Johnson refused to airlift special military supplies to Israel, or to promise public support for Israel if Israel went to war.
The Six-Day Success
Despite Johnsonâ€™s resistance, Israel launched an attack on its Arab neighbors on June 5, 1967, claiming that the conflict was provoked when Egyptian forces opened fire. (The CIA later concluded that it was Israel that had first fired upon Egyptian forces.)
On June 8, at the height of the conflict, which would become known as the Six-Day War, Israeli fighter/bombers attacked the USS Liberty, a lightly armed communications vessel sent on a mission to relay information on the course of the war to U.S. naval intelligence.
The attack killed 34 Americans sailors, and wounded 171 others. Israeli leaders have always claimed that they had mistaken the U.S. vessel for an enemy ship, but a number of U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, believed the attack was deliberate, possibly to prevent the United States from learning about Israelâ€™s war plans. [See As I Saw It by Dean Rusk.]
However, in deference to Israel, the U.S. government did not aggressively pursue the matter of the Liberty attack and even issued misleading accounts in medal citations to crew members, leaving out the identity of the attackers.
Meanwhile, on land and in the air, Israelâ€™s powerful military advanced, shredding the Arab defenses. Soon, the conflict escalated into another potential showdown between nuclear-armed superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States.
On June 10, President Johnson received a â€œHot Lineâ€ message from Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin. The Kremlin warned of grave consequences if Israel continued its military campaign against Syria by entering and/or occupying that country.
Johnson dispatched the Sixth Fleet to the Mediterranean, in a move to convince the Soviets of American resolve. But a ceasefire was declared later the same day, with Israel ending up in control of Syriaâ€™s Golan Heights, Egyptâ€™s Sinai, and Palestinian lands including Gaza and East Jerusalem.
But a wider war was averted. Johnsonâ€™s suspicions about Israelâ€™s expansionist intent had kept the United States from making an even bigger commitment that might have led to the Soviets countering with an escalation of their own.
Nixon and Yom Kippur
Israeli occupation of those additional Arab lands set the stage for a resumption of hostilities six years later, on Oct. 6, 1973, with the Yom Kippur War, which began with a surprise attack by Egypt against Israeli forces in the Sinai.
The offensive caught Israel off guard and Arab forces were close to overrunning Israelâ€™s outer defenses and entering the country. According to later accounts based primarily on Israeli leaks, Prime Minister Golda Meir and her â€œkitchen cabinetâ€ ordered the arming of 13 nuclear weapons, which were aimed at Egyptian and Syrian targets.
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Simha Dintz warned President Richard Nixon that very serious repercussions would occur if the United States did not immediately begin an airlift of military equipment and personnel to Israel.
Fearing that the Soviet Union might intervene and that nuclear war was possible, the U.S. military raised its alert level to DEFCON-3. U.S. Airborne units in Italy were put on full alert, and military aid was rushed to Israel.
Faced with a well-supplied Israeli counteroffensive and possible nuclear annihilation, the Arab forces fell back. The war ended on Oct. 26, 1973, but the United States had again been pushed to the brink of a possible superpower confrontation due to the unresolved Israeli-Arab conflict.
On Sept. 22, 1979, after some clouds unexpectedly broke over the South Indian Ocean, a U.S. intelligence satellite detected two bright flashes of light that were quickly interpreted as evidence of a nuclear test.
The explosion was apparently one of several nuclear tests that Israel had undertaken in collaboration with the white-supremacist government of South Africa. But President Jimmy Carter â€“ at the start of his reelection bid â€“ didnâ€™t want a showdown with Israel, especially on a point as sensitive as its secret nuclear work with the pariah government in Pretoria.
So, after news of the nuclear test leaked a month later, the Carter administration followed Israelâ€™s longstanding policy of â€œambiguityâ€ about the existence of its nuclear arsenal, a charade dating back to Richard Nixonâ€™s presidency with the United States pretending not to know for sure that Israel possessed nuclear bombs.
The Carter administration quickly claimed that there was â€œno confirmationâ€ of a nuclear test, and a panel was set up to conclude that the flashes were â€œprobably not from a nuclear explosion.â€
However, as investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and various nuclear experts later concluded, the flashes were most certainly an explosion of a low-yield nuclear weapon. [For details, see Hershâ€™s Samson Option.]
Despite Carterâ€™s helpful cover-up of the Israeli-South African nuclear test, he was still viewed with disdain by Israelâ€™s hard-line Likud leadership. Indeed, he arguably was the target of Israelâ€™s most audacious intervention in U.S. politics.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin was furious at Carter over the 1978 Camp David accords in which the U.S. President pushed the Israelis into returning the Sinai to the Egyptians in exchange for a peace agreement.
The next year, Carter failed to protect the Shah of Iran, an important Israeli regional ally who was forced from power by Islamic militants. Then, when Carter acceded to demands from the Shahâ€™s supporters to admit him to New York for cancer treatment, Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage.
In 1980, as Carter focused on his reelection campaign, Begin saw both dangers and opportunities. High-ranking Israeli diplomat/spy David Kimche described Beginâ€™s thinking in the 1991 book, The Last Option, recounting how Begin feared that Carter might force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and accept a Palestinian state if he won a second term.
â€œBegin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington,â€ Kimche wrote. â€œThey had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.â€
Beginâ€™s alarm was driven by the prospect of Carter being freed from the pressure of having to face another election, according to Kimche.
â€œUnbeknownst to the Israeli negotiators, the Egyptians held an ace up their sleeves, and they were waiting to play it,â€ Kimche wrote. â€œThe card was President Carterâ€™s tacit agreement that after the American presidential elections in November 1980, when Carter expected to be re-elected for a second term, he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.â€
So, by spring 1980, Begin had privately sided with Carterâ€™s Republican rival, Ronald Reagan, a reality that Carter soon realized.
Questioned by congressional investigators in 1992 regarding allegations about Israel conspiring with Republicans in 1980 to help unseat him, Carter said he knew by April 1980 that â€œIsrael cast their lot with Reagan,â€ according to notes found among the unpublished documents in the files of a House task force that looked into the so-called October Surprise case.
Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a â€œlingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.â€
Doing What Was Necessary
Begin was an Israeli leader committed to do whatever he felt necessary to advance Israeli security interests and the dream of a Greater Israel with Jews controlling the ancient Biblical lands. Before Israelâ€™s independence in 1948, he had led a Zionist terrorist group, and he founded the right-wing Likud Party in 1973 with the goal of â€œchanging the facts on the groundâ€ by placing Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.
Beginâ€™s anger over the Sinai deal and his fear of Carterâ€™s reelection set the stage for secret collaboration between Begin and the Republicans, according to another former Israeli intelligence official, Ari Ben-Menashe.
â€œBegin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,â€ Ben-Menashe wrote in his 1992 memoir, Profits of War. â€œAs Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israelâ€™s back.â€
Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel as a teen-ager, became part of a secret Israeli program to reestablish its Iranian intelligence network that had been decimated by the Islamic revolution. Ben-Menashe wrote that Begin authorized shipments to Iran of small arms and some military spare parts, via South Africa, as early as September 1979 and continued them despite Iranâ€™s seizure of the U.S. hostages in November 1979.
Extensive evidence also exists that Beginâ€™s preference for Reagan led the Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact Iranian leaders behind Carterâ€™s back, interfering with the Presidentâ€™s efforts to free the 52 American hostages before the November 1980 elections.
That evidence includes statements from senior Iranian officials, international arms dealers, intelligence operatives, and Middle East political figures (including a cryptic confirmation from Beginâ€™s successor Yitzhak Shamir). But the truth about the October Surprise case remains in dispute to this day. [For details, see Robert Parryâ€™s Secrecy & Privilege.]
It is clear that after Reagan defeated Carter â€” and the U.S. hostages were released immediately upon Reagan being sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981 â€” Israeli-brokered weapons shipments flowed to Iran with the secret blessing of the new Republican administration.
Dealing with Reagan
The Israel Lobby had grown exponentially since its start in the Eisenhower years. Israelâ€™s influential supporters were now positioned to use every political device imaginable to lobby Congress and to get the White House to acquiesce to whatever Israel felt it needed.
President Reagan also credentialed into the Executive Branch a new group of pro-Israeli American officials â€“ the likes of Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen and Jeane Kirkpatrick â€“ who became known as the neocons.
Yet, despite Reaganâ€™s pro-Israel policies, the new U.S. President wasnâ€™t immune from more Israeli deceptions and additional pressures.
Indeed, whether because of the alleged collusion with Reagan during the 1980 campaign or because Israel sensed its greater clout within his administration, Begin demonstrated a new level of audacity.
In 1981, Israel recruited Jonathan Pollard, an American Navy intelligence analyst, as a spy to acquire American intelligence satellite photos. Eventually, Pollard purloined massive amounts of intelligence information, some of which was reportedly turned over to Soviet intelligence by Israel to win favors from Moscow.
Prime Minister Begin sensed, too, that the time was ripe to gain the upper hand on other Arab enemies. He turned his attention to Lebanon, where the Palestine Liberation Organization was based.
When U.S. intelligence warned Reagan that Israel was massing troops along the border with Lebanon, Reagan sent a cable to Begin urging him not to invade. But Begin ignored Reaganâ€™s plea and invaded Lebanon the following day, on June 6, 1982. [See Time, Aug. 16, 1982.]
As the offensive progressed, Reagan sought a cessation of hostilities between Israel and the PLO, but Israel was intent on killing as many PLO fighters as possible. Periodic U.S.-brokered ceasefires failed as Israel used the slightest provocation to resume fighting, supposedly in self-defense.
â€œWhen PLO sniper fire is followed by fourteen hours of Israeli bombardment that is stretching the definition of defensive action too far,â€ complained Reagan, who kept the picture of a horribly burned Lebanese child on his desk in the Oval Office as a reminder of the tragedy of Lebanon.
The American public nightly witnessed the Israeli bombardment of Beirut on television news broadcasts. The pictures of dead, mutilated children caught in the Israeli artillery barrages, were particularly wrenching. Repulsed by the carnage, the U.S. public decidedly favored forcing Israel to stop.
When Reagan warned Israel of possible sanctions if its forces continued to indiscriminately attack Beirut, Israel launched a major offensive against West Beirut the next day.
In the United States, Israeli supporters demanded a meeting with Reagan to press Israelâ€™s case. Though Reagan declined the meeting, one was set up for 40 leaders of various Jewish organizations with Vice President George H.W. Bush, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz.
Reagan wrote once again to Begin, reminding him that Israel was allowed to use American weapons only for defensive purposes. He appealed to Beginâ€™s humanitarianism to stop the bombardment. The next day, in a meeting with Israeli supporters from the United States, Begin fumed that he would not be instructed by an American president or any other U.S. official.
â€œNobody is going to bring Israel to her knees. You must have forgotten that Jews do not kneel but to God,â€ Begin said. â€œNobody is going to preach to us humanitarianism.â€
Beginâ€™s government also used the tragedy in Lebanon as an opportunity to provide special favors for its American backers.
In From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York Times correspondent Thomas L. Freidman wrote that the Israeli Army conducted tours of the battlefront for influential U.S. donors. On one occasion, women from Hadassah were taken to the hills surrounding Beirut and were invited to look down on the city as Israeli artillery put on a display for them.
The artillery began an enormous barrage, with shells landing throughout the densely populated city. The shells struck and destroyed apartments, shops, homes and shacks