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The Only Language They Understand
I. American Pressure
I would be willing to lose my election because I will alienate the Jewish community.… Thus, if necessary, be harder on the Israelis.
—PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
When Jimmy Carter entered the White House in January 1977, no one expected that he would quickly obtain two of the most significant agreements in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the Framework for Peace in the Middle East, which served as the blueprint for the 1993 Oslo Accord.
Essential to Carter’s success was an approach wholly unlike those of his predecessors, one that was not expected by even the closest observers of the former peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. In his presidential memoirs, Carter wrote that prior to his election he “had no strong feelings about the Arab countries. I had never visited one and knew no Arab leaders.” Announcing his candidacy in December 1974, he highlighted his support for the integrity of Israel, to which he had traveled as governor of Georgia with his wife, Rosalynn, the previous year. The trip had special significance for Carter, a devout Southern Baptist who had studied the Bible since childhood. He stood atop the Mount of Olives, worshipped in Bethlehem, waded in the Jordan River, floated in the Dead Sea, studied excavations in Jericho, toured Nazareth, walked along the escarpments of the Golan Heights, and handed out Hebrew Bibles to young Israeli soldiers at a graduation ceremony in the West Bank military outpost at Beit El. He was briefed on Israeli politics and security by future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, foreign minister Abba Eban, former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, and prime minister Golda Meir. “My recent trip to Israel had a profound impact on my own life,” he wrote after returning to Atlanta. “It gave me a greater insight into and appreciation for the Jewish faith and the long and heroic struggle of the Jewish people for basic human rights and freedom.”1
It came as something of a shock, then, when early in his tenure Carter displayed an unprecedented willingness to confront Israel and withstand pressure from its supporters in the American Jewish community and Congress. He was the first American president to call publicly for an almost total Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. Of even greater concern to Israel, he was also the first to see the Palestinian issue as central to resolving the Middle East conflict and the first to speak of a Palestinian right to self-determination. Israeli nerves were rattled when, less than two months after taking office, he said publicly, “There has to be a homeland provided for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered for many, many years.” Carter believed the Palestine Liberation Organization was ready for compromise. At a time when Israel boycotted the group, he used the terms “Palestinian” and “PLO” interchangeably, another cause for Israeli alarm. Among his top White House advisers were Zbigniew Brzezinski and William Quandt, two participants in a 1975 Brookings Institution study group that recommended far-reaching shifts in US policy, including a push for Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, Palestinian self-determination, and “strong encouragement” from the great powers.2
The departure from the positions of previous administrations could hardly have been clearer. Carter’s predecessor Gerald Ford had issued a written assurance that the United States would “give great weight to … Israel remaining on the Golan Heights,” Syrian territory conquered in the 1967 war; Carter, by contrast, spoke of Israel’s return to the pre-1967 lines with only minor modifications. Ford promised Israel that the United States would not deal with the PLO until that body had recognized Israel’s right to exist, whereas Carter—to the great consternation of Israel and its American Jewish supporters—shook hands with the PLO representative at the UN, reached out through intermediaries to its leader, Yasir Arafat, and sought to include it in negotiations. Ford provided a letter to Yitzhak Rabin that has since been held up as a US commitment not to coerce or surprise Israel, giving it the right to review, if not veto, any US peace initiative. The letter stated that the United States would “make every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposals,” with a view to “refraining from putting forth” plans “that Israel would consider unsatisfactory.” Carter, conversely, would seek to orchestrate what he called a “showdown” with Israel; he decided early in his administration that the United States should “put together our own concept of what should be done in the Middle East” and then “put as much pressure as we can on the different parties to accept the solution that we think is fair.”3
Carter squeezed Israel harder on the Palestinian issue than any American president before or since. He believed Israel would make peace only if forced to by the United States, and he saw the denial of Palestinian self-determination as immoral. Summarizing his approach, he wrote:
Since I had made our nation’s commitment to human rights a central tenet of our foreign policy, it was impossible for me to ignore the very serious problems on the West Bank. The continued deprivation of Palestinian rights was not only used as the primary lever against Israel, but was contrary to the basic moral and ethical principles of both our countries. In my opinion it was imperative that the United States work to obtain for these people the right to vote, the right to assemble and to debate issues that affected their lives, the right to own property without fear of its being confiscated, and the right to be free of military rule. To deny these rights was an indefensible position for a free and democratic society.4
Carter made the Arab-Israeli conflict a priority and brought to it a sense of urgency that his predecessors had felt only in reaction to a crisis or war. He spent more time on the issue than on any other during his presidency. Unsatisfied with the small, iterative steps preferred by the Israelis, he began planning for an international peace conference in Geneva that would include the PLO and aim for a comprehensive resolution. Early in his administration, Carter blocked two deals for US weapons sought by Israel, and in each case he stood his ground in the face of an intense lobbying effort. At their first meeting together as heads of state, in March 1977, Carter was tough on Rabin, telling him that the administration would hold to its position that settlements in the Occupied Territories were illegal, enjoining him to adopt a “fresh perspective” on a permanent solution, informing him that only minor modifications to the pre-1967 lines could be made, and pressing him to allow PLO leaders to attend the Geneva peace conference then being prepared. He expressed frustration at Rabin’s insistence that he would not deal with the PLO even if it accepted Israel’s legitimacy and UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for peace in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from territory occupied in 1967. Carter pointed out that the United States had talked to North Korea and that France had negotiated with the Algerian National Liberation Front, despite its use of terrorism. “It would be a blow to U.S. support for Israel,” Carter warned, “if you refused to participate in the Geneva talks over the technicality of the PLO being in the negotiations.”5 The Israeli delegation left the White House deeply distraught.
A series of warm meetings between Carter and Arab heads of state did little to allay Israel’s fears. Whereas Carter described Rabin as “very timid, very stubborn, and also somewhat ill at ease,” he wrote of Jordan’s King Hussein that “we all really liked him, enjoyed his visit, and believe he’ll be a strong and staunch ally.” Of meeting Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, Carter wrote, “It was a very interesting and enjoyable experience. There was a lot of good humor between us, and I found him to be very constructive in his attitude.” But Carter reserved his most glowing praise for the Egyptian president, who traveled to Washington on a state visit: “On April 4, 1977, a shining light burst on the Middle East scene for me. I had my first meetings with President Anwar Sadat.” In his diary, he wrote: “he was a charming and frank and also very strong and courageous leader who has never shrunk from making difficult public decisions.… I believe he’ll be a great aid if we get down to the final discussions on the Middle East.… my judgment is that he will deliver.” At the end of Sadat’s visit, Carter told his wife, “This had been my best day as President.” Several weeks later he would write, “My own judgment at this time is that the Arab leaders want to settle it and the Israelis don’t.”6
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A severe setback seemed to have been delivered to Carter’s push for a comprehensive peace when, in May 1977, Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud Party won an upset victory over Labor, which together with its antecedent, Mapai, had dominated Israeli politics since the state’s establishment, heading each of the country’s first seventeen governments. Begin was largely unknown in Washington. Carter’s advisers scrambled to provide him with material on the incoming prime minister’s positions, history, and outlook. Begin was haunted by the Holocaust—in his hometown of Brest, in occupied Poland, nearly all of the Jews, including his parents and brother, were executed—and he viewed the world as inherently dangerous and anti-Semitic. In 1952 he opposed Israel’s reparations agreement with West Germany, delivering a fiery speech as his supporters marched on the Knesset and stoned it. He was a disciple of the Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, whom he called his master. After Jabotinsky’s death in 1940 and Begin’s release from the Soviet gulag in 1941, he arrived in Palestine and rose to command Jabotinsky’s Zionist paramilitary organization, the Irgun, for which he would spearhead the use of improvised explosives and simultaneous bombings against the British. His memoir of his time with the Irgun, The Revolt, was admired as a manual of guerrilla warfare by members of the Irish Republican Army and the African National Congress, and his writings would later be found at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and read by Osama bin Laden. In 1946, the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, site of the British Mandate’s military and administrative headquarters, killing ninety-one people, most of them civilians. In April 1948, one month before Israel declared independence as the British withdrew, the Irgun detonated grenades and dynamite in civilian homes in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, leaving more than one hundred dead. Both operations had been approved by David Ben-Gurion’s paramilitary organization, the Haganah, but Begin took most of the blame.7
Throughout his life, he was a staunch ideological opponent of Palestine’s partition. He opposed it when the British first recommended it in 1937, and again in 1947 when the United Nations endorsed it in Resolution 181. The emblem of the Irgun was a map of the territory to which it laid claim, Palestine and Transjordan, over which a rifle was superimposed, and under which appeared the words “Only Thus.” The platform of his political party, Herut—Likud’s predecessor—asserted, “The Jordan has two banks; this one is ours, and that one too.” By the time the Revisionists came to power in 1977, they no longer claimed the territory of Jordan. But the Likud’s 1977 platform left no possibility of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, which it referred to by the biblical names Judea and Samaria:
The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is eternal, and is an integral part of its right to security and peace. Judea and Samaria shall therefore not be relinquished to foreign rule; between the sea and the Jordan, there will be Jewish sovereignty alone. Any plan that involves surrendering parts of the Western Land of Israel militates against our right to the Land, would inevitably lead to the establishment of a “Palestinian State,” threaten the security of the civilian population, endanger the existence of the State of Israel, and defeat all prospects of peace.8
Begin’s attachment to Sinai and the Golan Heights was not nearly as strong as his devotion to what he called the Western Land of Israel (that is, west of the Jordan River). Following the 1967 war, he did not oppose the government’s expression of willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights and Sinai, but in 1970 he forced his party to leave the coalition government when the latter had accepted an American plan based on UN Resolution 242, implying Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank as well. The day after his election in 1977, he visited a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and promised to establish many more. During that visit he corrected reporters who used the terms West Bank (“The world must get used to the area’s real—biblical—name,” he said: “Judea and Samaria”) and annexation (“You annex foreign land, not your own country”). Tears nearly came to his eyes when he first described to Carter the perils of withdrawing from the West Bank. “Please,” he said, “excuse my emotions.” He considered this land to be the site of many of the most significant stories in the Bible, making it no less the divine birthright of the Jewish people than the 55 percent of mandatory Palestine allotted to the Jews by the UN in 1947, or the additional 23 percent they had conquered in the 1948 war. If Jews had no right to the land God promised them in Judea and Samaria, Begin believed, they had no right to Haifa and Tel Aviv. Begin would tell Carter that the Arab part of Jerusalem that Israel had conquered in the 1967 war was the heart of the Israeli nation: “The Eastern part is the real Jerusalem—West Jerusalem is an addition.”9
The other members of Begin’s government did not inspire more confidence in the possibility of peace. His defense minister, Ezer Weizman, a combat pilot and former deputy chief of staff who had overseen the total destruction of the Egyptian air force on the first day of the 1967 war, was a former member of the Irgun. Begin’s agriculture minister, former major general Ariel Sharon, among the most accomplished commanders in Israel’s history, was a champion of the settlement enterprise and had led the 1953 massacre of sixty-nine Palestinian residents of the West Bank village of Qibya, ordering “maximal killing and damage to property.” To allay fears that the government would adopt extremist policies and to give it a sense of continuity with its predecessors, Begin named, as foreign minister—and key interlocutor with the United States—Moshe Dayan, a hawkish member of the Labor Party and a revered former chief of staff who had been defense minister during the 1967 war. Shortly after that war, when no Jewish settlements had yet been established, Dayan said that one of his primary goals was to prevent the West Bank from continuing to have an Arab majority. On another occasion, he said that it was better for Israel to have the Sinai beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than to have peace without Sharm el-Sheikh. “The Arabs would not dare go to war against us,” Begin said, “when in the government sit military leaders like Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman, and Ariel Sharon.”10
The odds were stacked overwhelmingly against Carter and his aides. But rather than reassess policies and objectives in light of the new government, Carter’s team began to prepare for an inevitable confrontation. There were reasons not to abandon their strategy. It made little sense to wait indefinitely for a return to power of the Labor Party, which on many of the most important foreign policy issues was not all that different from Likud. The main difference between them concerning the West Bank was that Likud wanted to annex it or at least prevent any non-Israeli sovereignty there, whereas Labor was willing to divide it with Jordan, annexing to Israel approximately one-third, including Jerusalem.11 But both ideas were totally unacceptable to the Palestinians and the Arab states. And, in at least one important respect, Carter’s goals were more aligned with Begin’s than with Rabin’s: Begin wanted a full peace treaty with Egypt, whereas Rabin preferred to create new interim agreements.
There were, moreover, some in the administration who believed that Begin’s election was not necessarily bad for Carter. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski “seemed to think that Begin’s election would ultimately be helpful to the administration’s strategy, if only because it would be easier to pressure a government led by Begin than one in which Begin was leader of the opposition,” wrote National Security Council staff member William Quandt. “In Brzezinski’s analysis,” he wrote, “the president should be able to count on the support of the Israeli opposition, as well as the bulk of the American Jewish community, if he ever faced a showdown with Begin.”12 This was perhaps too optimistic, but it contained a kernel of truth.
Much of the American Jewish community was uncomfortable with Begin’s hard-line policies. And though Carter felt that his diplomacy was constrained by the criticisms of American Jews, some within the community encouraged him to confront Begin. Nahum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress and former president of the World Zionist Organization, told Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that Begin was a “retarded child.” He mocked the prime minister for having told a group of American Jewish scholars that there was no need to fear an Arab majority if Israel annexed the West Bank, because within a few years the country would absorb two million new Jewish immigrants—this at a time when immigrants to Israel were few. Goldmann urged the administration to bear down on Israel. “The Jews are a very stubborn people,” he said. “That is why they have survived, but they must often be forced to do what is in their own best interest. The Bible says that God brought the Jews out of Egypt ‘with a strong arm,’ because, as the Talmud notes, if He had not used ‘a strong arm,’ the Jews would never have left their bondage.” Goldmann also pointed out that Carter had a majority in Congress and so could perhaps succeed where earlier presidents had not.13
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Copyright © 2017 by Nathan Thrall