Whether Likud or Labor, more than a few Israeli prime ministers have been stung by the barbs of a “frustrated” White House.
By Rafael Medoff
Vice President Joe Biden’s declared “frustration” with the Israeli government may have insulted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he is only the latest in a long line of Israeli prime ministers in whom the White House has found fault at one time or another.
Ironically, many of the Israeli leaders with whom past U.S. presidents have clashed were from the leftwing Labor Party, not the rightwing Likud.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was the first Israeli leader to find himself at odds with Washington. In the spring of 1948, President Harry Truman instructed the State Department to pressure Ben-Gurion to postpone declaring the establishment of Israel. If the Zionist leaders refused to back down, “they need not expect anything from us,” Truman told the State Department’s Dean Rusk.
Truman made good on that threat. Although he extended diplomatic recognition to the newborn Jewish State, the president imposed a total arms embargo on Israel throughout the War of Independence. Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion never regretted his decision to declare statehood.
The administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, too, expressed Biden-like “frustration” with the Israelis. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles demanded that Israel agree to let Jerusalem be ruled by “the world religious community.” Eisenhower’s State Department declared in 1953 that Jewish immigration to Israel from around the world was making the Arab nations feel threatened, so Israel needed to “re-examine its policy of encouraging large-scale immigration.”
Eisenhower’s frustration with Ben-Gurion reached new levels after Israel’s pre-emptive strike against Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. The president told aides that he considered Ben-Gurion an “extremist” and questioned the Israeli prime minister’s “balance and rationality.”
James Reston of the New York Times reported this colorful illustration of the president’s anger toward Ben-Gurion: “The White House crackled with barracks room language the like of which had not been heard since the days of General Grant.” Those insults were soon translated into concrete steps, as the Eisenhower administration blocked U.S. assistance to Israel and threatened to impose sanctions unless Ben-Gurion ceded territory to Nasser.
President John F. Kennedy, for his part, was frustrated by Ben-Gurion’s refusal to acknowledge that Israel was developing nuclear weapons. Meeting in New York City in May 1961, JFK pressed the Israeli leader for details on what was taking place at the Dimona nuclear research facility.
“Ben-Gurion mumbled and spoke very softly; it was hard to hear him and understand what he was saying, partly due to his accent,” according to Prof. Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb. Recently declassified National Security Archive documents show that U.S. inspectors who were given a partial tour of the Dimona facility in 1962 felt they were being “tricked” and “misled” because they were shown only some of the buildings.
The Israeli prime minister who received perhaps the harshest treatment from a “frustrated” White House was Yitzhak Rabin. Today, of course, Rabin is remembered fondly in Washington for the concessions he made as part of the Oslo accords in 1993-1995. But Rabin was not very popular at the White House in the spring of 1975, when he balked at the Ford administration’s demand that he give strategic Sinai mountain passes and oil fields to Egypt in exchange for little more than a brief ceasefire.
In his book The Secret Conversations of Henry Kissinger, Matti Golan, the chief diplomatic correspondent for Ha’aretz, revealed what happened next. President Gerald Ford sent Rabin a telegram that was “tough, even brutal.” Ford “ominously warned of damaging relations between Israel and the United States” if Rabin failed to “consent to Egypt’s conditions.”
When Rabin hesitated, Ford announced that Israel was to blame for the failure of the negotiations, and said the U.S. would undertake a “reassessment” of its Mideast policy. All American military aid to Israel was suspended in the meantime.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger cranked up the pressure by giving a series of off-the-record briefings to reporters in which he blasted Israel’s leaders. Rabin was “a small man,” Kissinger told the journalists; Defense Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Yigal Allon were consumed by “petty personal rivalries.”
Kissinger himself proved to be remarkably petty. He “directed that the special line connecting his office to the Israeli embassy should be removed”; all telephone calls by Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz to Kissinger were now transferred to Kissinger’s aides; and “when they met at Washington gatherings, it was no longer ‘Simcha,’ but ‘Mr. Ambassador.’”
A worried Rabin tried to appease Washington by announcing a unilateral withdrawal of some of Israeli troops from near the Suez Canal. Washington’s response? “Kissinger let it be leaked to the press that he regarded the Israeli gesture as meaningless.”
When Rabin visited Washington in June, the pressure intensified, according to Golan: “Ford warned Rabin right away that the approaching American elections would not get Israel off the hook. If there was no agreement with Egypt, Ford said, the United States would go to Geneva with a plan of its own, even if it lost him votes and stirred up opposition in Congress.” Confronted by these pressures, Rabin and his cabinet “simply caved in.”
Whether Likud or Labor, more than a few Israeli prime ministers have been stung by the barbs of a “frustrated” White House. No doubt the Israeli leaders have, in turn, felt frustrated that some American presidents have seemed to give short shrift to Israel’s legitimate security concerns. The good news is that an occasional outburst by an official on either side is no reason for panic; the America-Israel alliance has withstood may challenges and no doubt will withstand others in the future.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of 16 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.