Can Israel afford to defy U.S. presidential pressure to concede land, which is historically and militarily critical to the future of the Jewish state?
U.S. presidential pressure has been an integral part of the U.S.-Israel saga since 1948. However, in retrospect, U.S. pressure on Israel has been based on erroneous assessments of the Middle East, failing to advance the cause of peace, as evidenced by the only two peace accords (between Israel and Egypt and Jordan), which were the result of direct Israeli initiatives, not U.S. pressure.
In fact, U.S. pressure on Israel has forced Arabs to outflank the U.S. from the maximalist side, causing further setbacks to the peace process.
Furthermore, the outbursts of U.S. pressure over the last 69 years have resembled bumps on the road of staggering, mutually beneficial, defense, commercial, technological, scientific and agricultural U.S.-Israel cooperation, which has exceeded expectations.
From 1948, U.S. presidential pressure on Israel — in defiance of the majority of Americans and their representatives in Congress — has reflected the worldview of the State Department bureaucracy, which has systematically misread the Middle East.
For example, in 1948, “the wise men” at the State Department opposed the establishment of the Jewish state, contending that Israel would be an ally of the USSR and would be crushed by the Arabs. In 1979, the State Department stabbed the back of the pro-U.S. Shah of Iran and courted the anti-U.S. ayatollahs. In 1990, it considered Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a potential ally, unintentionally providing a green light for his invasion of Kuwait. In 1993, Foggy Bottom embraced Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat as a messenger of peace worthy of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2011, it assumed that the Arab Spring would be a flowering of democracy. It turned its back on Egypt’s pro-U.S. President Hosni Mubarak, welcomed the rise to power of the anti-U.S. Muslim Brotherhood, and in 2014, it turned a cold-shoulder toward the current pro-U.S. Egyptian leader, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
If Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had succumbed to U.S. pressure during 1948-1949, he would not have established the Jewish state, nor asserted Israeli sovereignty over west Jerusalem and significant parts of the Galilee and the Negev, laying the foundations for the most effective U.S. beachhead in the Middle East.
If Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had submitted to the 1967 U.S. pressure, he would not have pre-empted the Soviet-backed Egypt-Syria-Jordan military assault, intended to annihilate Israel, as a prelude to pro-Soviet Egyptian hegemony in the Arab world, toppling the pro-U.S. Arab oil-producing regimes, and devastating the U.S. national security and economy. Nor would Eshkol have reunited Jerusalem, which has allowed unprecedented access to all holy sites in the city.
The defiance of U.S. pressure since 1967 transformed Israel from a supplicant to a strategic partner of the U.S., bolstering the vulnerable pro-U.S. Arab regimes, sparing the U.S. the mega-billion-dollar requirement to expand its naval, air and land military ?presence in the Middle East, Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea.
If Prime Minister Menachem Begin had surrendered to U.S. pressure in 1981, he would not have ordered the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, which spared the U.S. a traumatic 1990-1991 confrontation with a nuclear Saddam.
If Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had acceded to U.S. pressure, retreating from the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, which dominate the 9-15-mile-wide pre-1967 Israel, he would have transformed Israel from a national security producer, extending the strategic hand of the U.S., into a national security consumer, a burden on the U.S.
If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had abided by U.S. pressure, he would not have devastated the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, which would plague today’s global order with a nuclear Bashar Assad or nuclear ISIS.
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had succumbed to U.S. pressure, allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state in the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, he would have triggered an anti-U.S. chain reaction in the region. This is evidenced by the Palestinian track record, and would have led to the toppling of the vulnerable Hashemite regime in Jordan, causing a ripple effect which would have destabilized all pro-U.S. regimes in the neighboring Arabian Peninsula, upgrading the geo-strategic profile of Iran, Russia, China and possibly North Korea in the Middle East.
U.S. presidential pressure on Israel has been an inherent, unavoidable leadership litmus test for Israeli prime ministers, whose challenge has been to overcome — not avoid — pressure, while adhering to core ideology and strategic goals. True leaders do not sacrifice deeply rooted ideology and long-term national security on the altar of short-term, tenuous convenience (e.g., relief from U.S. pressure). Leaders are aware that steadfastness and defiance of pressure may injure frivolous popularity but enhance durable respect. Fending off — not hesitating and retreating in the face of — pressure has advanced Israel’s posture of deterrence, thus moderating Arab aggression.
In the battle against Iran’s ayatollahs and other Islamic terrorists, and in the attempt to bolster pro-U.S. Arab regimes, the U.S. prefers a defiant, not a vacillating, Israel as an ally.
The assumption that Israeli prime ministers must bow to U.S. pressure and commit to dramatic concessions, lest they severely undermine U.S.-Israel relations, ignores precedents set by former Israeli prime ministers and constitutes a poor excuse for weak leaders.
At the end of a 1991 meeting between Shamir and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders George Mitchell and Bob Dole, which was replete with disagreements, the latter said: “Mr. Prime Minister, do you know why the majority leader and I absolutely disagree with you, but immensely respect you? Because you’re tough!”
Ignoring Middle East reality, U.S. pressure on Israel has focused on the Palestinian issue, which has never been the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a core cause of regional turbulence and anti-U.S. Islamic terrorism, or a crown jewel of Arab policy-making. Hence, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty and the recent enhancement of Israel-Saudi relations are totally independent of the Palestinian issue.
Will U.S. President Donald Trump learn from past mistakes, by avoiding self-defeating pressure on Washington’s most reliable, effective, democratic and unconditional ally?
Will Netanyahu follow in the footsteps of Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Golda Meir, Begin and Shamir, who generally defied U.S. pressure — while expanding the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria — and therefore earned esteem, catapulting the national security of Israel and its strategic ties with the U.S. to unprecedented heights?
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.