Saturday, September 6, 2008

Yehuda Avner on Begin's US Strategic Relationship

Bygone Days: The strategic agreement that never was

Sep. 6, 2008

US president Ronald Reagan had a craving for jelly beans. He started chewing them in the early 1960s when he gave up smoking. On entering the White House in 1981, he had crystal jars of jelly beans placed on his desk in the Oval Office, on the table in the cabinet room, in the suites of his guest house and on Air Force One, where a receptacle was fashioned to prevent spillage during turbulence. Guests at Ronald Reagan's inaugural balls consumed 40 million jelly beans, almost equaling the number of votes he received in the election, or so the tabloids blazed.

"I can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without first passing around a jar of jelly beans," Reagan quipped to prime minister Menachem Begin when they met for the first time in early September 1981. "You can tell a lot about a fella's character by whether he picks out all of one color, or just grabs a fistful. Here, take a few."

Begin grinned and obliged, scooping up a small handful. Having once been an ardent movie-goer, he could not resist a passing reference to the president's past acting career, to which Reagan laughed in a deep, jovial way, and joked, "You know, someone asked me how can an actor become a president, and I answered, how can a president not be an actor?" The jest had them both in a fit of laughter.

Without a doubt, the president's genial tone and infectious bonhomie were giving Begin a sense of uncommon ease, and when the Californian beseeched, "Please, call me Ron. And may I call you Menachem?" (He pronounced it Menakem.) Begin responded with the widest of smiles and with the falsest of modesty: "Oh, no, Mr. President; I'm a mere prime minister and you are the president of the mightiest power on earth. So by all means call me by my first name, but I cannot call you by yours."

"You sure can, Menakem. I insist," said the president.

"In that case, Ron, I shall," said the prime minister, elated.

THEY WERE sitting across from one another on cheery, floral-patterned settees in the Oval Office, with a view of the sunny rose garden through the tall windows, the presidential colors draped next to a prominent portrait of Thomas Jefferson and, elsewhere, mementos, plaques, signed photographs - all the bric-a-brac of a public man who had once been a middling film star and then a popular state governor. Begin could not be totally certain how much of his affability was Hollywood and how much was sincere, but having learned that the man had a genuine admiration for Israel, he allowed himself the euphoria of being cuddled in this big man's bighearted welcome.

It seemed to Begin that Reagan was deliberately seeking to break the ice in a demonstrative display of camaraderie, giving him a rare opportunity to open up his heart and to say what was on his mind in a free-wheeling tête-à-tête. Imagine, then, his astonishment, nay bewilderment, when hardly had he opened his mouth to talk about the burning issues of the day when Reagan interrupted him to say: "You must forgive me, Menakem, but we have only a quarter of an hour before we have to join the others in the cabinet room. So I would just like to make" - he slipped his hand into his pocket and extracted a pack of 3x5 cards - "a few points. The first is..."

Begin stared in disbelief as the American president began reciting in mechanical tones a series of typed "talking points" consisting largely of a standard reaffirmation of America's known positions on Israel and the Middle East. And when he paused, which he did twice, the premier assumed it was to allow him to engage. But it wasn't. It was simply Reagan making sure of his lines.

Was the president of the United States so uninformed that he needed to read by rote elementary issues from cue cards, like a third-rate actor? So Begin sat and listened. Never before had he deliberated with a world leader - the world leader - who was such an abysmal interlocutor.

Reagan was destined to enter history as a brilliant public communicator, the man who reinvigorated the American people after the lackluster years of Jimmy Carter, who restored his country's prosperity and who initiated what pundits described as a pie-in-the-sky "Star Wars" enterprise but which, ultimately, brought the communist empire to its knees. Little of this, however, was evident at that first encounter, which ended with the president repocketing his talking points and saying, "And that, Menakem, is how America sees things," to which Begin responded with a gracious, "I thank you, Ron, for that comprehensive review."

"Now let's join the people in the cabinet room," said the president, and he led the way into the adjacent chamber, with its Colonial-style cream-paneled walls, immense brass chandelier, golden drapes and a grand oak conference table with high-backed leather chairs behind which senior advisers stood in respectful attendance.

Seating himself at the table's center, facing the prime minister, Reagan extracted another pack of cards, and in the practiced style of a late-night talk show host, suavely welcomed Begin and his entourage (which included defense minister Ariel Sharon), describing Israel as "a strategic asset," and inviting the premier to make any comments he wished.

Begin obliged, delving into a tour d'horizon, and ending with the cautiously chosen words: "You, Mr. President [he did not think it proper to call him by his first name in this setting], kindly referred to my country just now as a strategic asset to yours. While that, certainly, has a positive ring to it I find it, nevertheless, a little patronizing. Given the bipolar world in which we live - democracy versus communism - the cherished values we share and our confluence of interests on so many fundamental issues, might I suggest the time has come to publicly acknowledge that Israel is not just a strategic asset, but a strategic ally."

SOME AROUND the table looked at the premier in a faintly disconcerted manner. Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, a rather diminutive man with sleek black hair and of vague Jewish origin, was actually frowning. But the president continued to give the premier his fullest attention, and he chuckled when Begin jocularly remarked: "You know, Mr. President, I sometimes get the impression that our relationship is a little like Heinrich Heine's famous couplet about the Berlin bourgeoisie gentleman who implores his mistress not to acknowledge him in public in that city's most fashionable boulevard, begging her: 'Greet me not Unter den Linden,' I fear there are some who would say much the same to us."

On all sides American faces seemed either bemused or irritated, but not the president's. He looked at the prime minister with respect, and chortled, "I'd be proud to acknowledge you in public anywhere, any time."

"Certainly, in this alliance," continued Begin, "Israel is very much the junior partner, but a partner we are. And I dare say" - a faint smile curled his lips and his voice sank into understatement - "over the decades Israel has done a thing or two which might have contributed to the American strategic interest in our region. And much as we deeply appreciate the military and economic aid we receive, I venture to suggest it is not an entirely one-way street - not a charity, so to speak."

There, he had said it; he had spelled it out. No other Israeli premier had quite put it that way before - that Israel was not merely a receiver but also a giver. And as he spoke he noted that Reagan was nodding in agreement. The president looked to his right and to his left, invited discussion, but since most everyone seemed taciturn Begin seized the moment and said: "Might I suggest, Mr. President, that consideration be given to an agreed document on this matter - on the strategic relationship between our two countries."

Weinberger's cold gray eyes glared back at him, and he grunted some sort of reservation, but secretary of state Alexander Haig seemed eminently amenable.

"What the prime minister proposes sounds like a good idea to me," said the president. "Let's look into it."

Menachem Begin sat up abruptly; energy coursed through him. He had been waiting for this moment for a long time, the moment when the United States of America would grant the State of Israel the status of a full-fledged strategic ally. So, with alacrity he said, "With your permission, Mr. President, may I call on defense minister Sharon to share with you and your colleagues a number of ideas which might give expression to this concept?"

"By all means," said Reagan. "Go ahead."

Sharon, known as "the Bulldozer" because of his girth, his autocratic style, his military daring and his craggy features, stood up, and with a set of maps proceeded to give an elaborate presentation of the ways Israel and America might cooperate strategically. Weinberger reddened at Sharon's swashbuckling audaciousness. Others on the American side exchanged uneasy glances. But Sharon plowed on imperviously, proposing what was tantamount to a wide-ranging mutual defense treaty. Begin, sensing the growing uneasiness, suggested the president authorize the two defense ministers to confer with the intent of finding a mutually acceptable formula.

"Good idea," said Haig.

"Why don't you two fellas get together and see if you can work something out in this area?" said Reagan.

Weinberger seemed dumbfounded. One could see he was seething - stuck with a presidential request to deliberate with a man he could not abide about an agreement to which he was totally opposed.

On the morrow, Weinberger summoned his chief aides to his Pentagon conference room and told them, "I want no publicity about this. The Israelis are going to do just the opposite. They'll want lots of publicity, and they'll want a binding document with lots of detail. We're not going to subscribe to that at all. Whatever we'll sign will be so general and so empty of content that we'll be able to defend it in the Arab world. And I want the negotiations to be held right here in Washington. I intend to control them myself." And control them he did.

THE TALKS began with the Israeli Defense Ministry presenting the Pentagon negotiators with a 29-page booklet containing a sweeping list of military cooperation proposals. This spawned a plethora of acrimonious negotiations which, in the words of one American participant, "was like being in a washing machine where sometimes things went very smoothly and the water was warm. Then suddenly cold water would come out of nowhere and you'd be turned the other way and get hit across the head with some unexpected action. It was a funny time: On one hand, things were done at the president's behest, but then undone by his secretary of defense."

At one point Sharon so lost his temper that he began shouting and banging on the table, at which Weinberger coolly remarked to an aide, "Do you suppose minister Sharon has taken a dislike to that table?" Soon enough, Sharon became so disenchanted he decided to wash his hands of the whole thing, but Begin insisted he persist. He wanted a symbol of the alliance, if not a formal treaty. What he got was a brief 700-word memorandum of understanding that contained little that was new or substantive.

It was signed in November 1981 without fanfare by Sharon and Weinberger at an informal dinner at the National Geographic Society in Washington. No press was invited, and the Pentagon did not even issue its customary briefing. In what was an extraordinarily calculated intent to play down the whole exercise, nowhere is there a photograph of the two defense ministers signing the agreement.

And that is how Caspar Weinberger got his way and Menachem Begin his document.

The writer was on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.
blog comments powered by Disqus