Obama and Netanyahu: A Historical Perspective
When Obama endorsed the Palestinian demand for indefensible borders, Netanyahu followed a long tradition in opposing them.
June 23, 2011 - 12:00 am
Rusk’s response produced a chill in the room. He told Eshkol the Arabs would always be able to outdo Israel in a military build-up:
If the Arabs see an Israel they cannot live with, one that is intolerable to them, they won’t back away from an arms race. . . . So what we would like to hear from you today is, what kind of an Israel do you want the Arabs to live with? What kind of an Israel do you want the American people to support? Surely, the answer to those questions is not to be found in military hardware.
Eshkol leaned forward toward Rusk and responded as follows:
All I can say to you now is that our victory in the Six-Day War blocked the Soviet Union from taking over the Middle East, and that, surely, is an American interest. As for the kind of Israel the Arabs can live with and which the American people can support, the only answer I can presently give you is an Israel whose map will be different from the one on the eve of the Six-Day War. . . . [W]e cannot return to those old, vulnerable armistice frontiers that virtually invited hostilities. [Emphasis added].
Johnson wrote a sentence on a piece of paper and passed it to Rusk (“Dean – go slow on this thing”) and ended the visit promising Israel the most advanced U.S. fighter planes available.
In 1969, President Nixon’s secretary of state, William Rogers, put forth a plan with changes to the 1967 lines “confined to insubstantial alterations required for mutual security” — with “guarantees” of a “state of peace” by the U.S., Russia, Britain, and France. He did not consult with Israel first.
Golda Meir said it was a plan no Israeli government could ever accept. Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, prepared material for reporters, politicians, and opinion makers reflecting Israel’s talking papers with the administration. The material stated that:
U.S. policy as it is now unfolding comes close to the advocacy and development of an imposed settlement. . . . [T]he U.S. proposals do more than undermine the principle of negotiation; they preempt its very prospect. If the United States has already determined what the “secure and recognized boundaries” are, there is no point in Israel taking part in any negotiations with anybody at all. Why should the Arabs consent to give Israel more than what America is recommending publicly?
In White House Years, Kissinger recounted that he told Nixon the plan was “doomed to futility” — it would require massive pressure on Israel and was more likely to produce a war than peace. The plan eventually died.
When Menachem Begin first met Jimmy Carter in 1978, he brought with him a map of the 1967 lines, and he addressed the president at length, with emotion:
We were a helpless people, Mr. President. We were bled, not once, not twice, but century after century, over and over again. We lost a third of our people in one generation — mine. One-and-a-half million of them were children — ours. No one came to our rescue. . . .
As you see, our military cartographers have delineated the tiny area we had for defense in [the 1967] war. It was a war of survival in the most literal sense. Our backs were to the sea. We had absolutely no defensive depth. . . . There is no going back to those lines. [Emphasis added].
Begin told Carter that settlements were not only an expression of the right of Jews to settle anywhere in their historic homeland, but a military necessity. Their purpose was not expansionism, but self-defense.
Presidential love is not a substitute for defensible borders, any more than a “guaranty” or a “binding” UN resolution would be. And it is essential to recognize that defensible borders for Israel are as much an American interest as an Israeli one: indefensible borders will simply produce another Middle East war, no matter what the peace agreement says, or who signs it, or how many Nobel Prizes result from it.
In Years of Upheaval, Henry Kissinger reflected on the remarkable nature of Israel’s not infrequent resistance to U.S. pressure, given Israel’s unique dependence on America. It takes, he wrote, “a special brand of heroism to turn total dependence into defiance.” But Kissinger concluded that:
Israel’s obstinacy, maddening as it can be, serves the purposes of both our countries best. A subservient client would soon face an accumulation of ever-growing pressures. It would tempt Israel’s neighbors to escalate their demands. It would saddle us with opprobrium for every deadlock.
When Obama endorsed the Palestinian demand for indefensible borders on May 19, Netanyahu followed a long tradition in opposing them. He took a position that serves the purposes of both countries best, in the same way that multiple prior prime ministers had done in similar situations.