Thursday, August 13, 2009

An Article on Begin and Reagan

Reagan, Begin, and the dustbin of diplomacy

by Douglas M. Bloomfield

August 13, 2009

The last thing Bibi Netanyahu wants from Barack Obama is what Mahmoud Abbas and his Arab brethren are praying for: a comprehensive American Middle East peace plan.

Rumors abound that one is in the works, but they appear based more on fear and hope than on any hard evidence. So far the administration can’t even get the two sides to agree on the first step back to the negotiating table: a settlement freeze in exchange for reciprocal gestures by the Arabs.

The Saudis, Jordanians, and Kuwaitis have publicly rejected the incremental approach, but Obama’s special envoy George Mitchell is still hoping to produce some kind of package that will give the parties the cover they need to return to negotiations. The president may give some clues about his plans when Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak comes to Washington next week, but details are still a few weeks away, according to a State Department spokesman.

The administration is said to be divided on its approach to Mideast peacemaking, no doubt because so many cooks are stirring the pot. In addition to Mitchell and his nominal boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there are Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro at the National Security Council and their boss, Gen. Jim Jones, plus top White House aides Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, and Vice President Joe Biden.

The first Mideast peace conference may have to be a White House staff meeting.

Despite the speculation they’re drafting a major peace plan along the lines of those produced by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, administration policy-makers know all of those failed.

Obama is more likely to opt for a PR campaign featuring him and top aides in interviews with Israeli and Arab media — plus a presidential visit to the region — to define the administration’s vision of peace and how to achieve it. That is likely to be followed by an all-parties conference if there’s a solution to the settlements imbroglio.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, one of those predicting an American peace proposal, advised his colleagues, “Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan.” He knows what happened in 1982.

When Ronald Reagan offered a comprehensive peace proposal 27 years ago, it was doomed by “flawed tactics and timing,” according to Sam Lewis, the American ambassador who presented the plan to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on Aug. 31, 1982, the day before Reagan was to unveil it.

Reagan had cleared his peace plan in advance with the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians, but not with Israel, which had no opportunity for any input.

That “stunned” and infuriated Begin and “hardened the Israeli reaction and converted a probable failure into a certain one,” Lewis later wrote.

Whether the United States offers a conflict-ending peace plan or a series of bridging proposals, both Obama and Netanyahu can learn from Reagan’s mistakes. Netanyahu was personally involved as the deputy chief of mission at Israel’s Washington embassy at the time, and more than most, he should know that how the two sides respond initially will be critical.

When Lewis briefed Begin, Netanyahu’s boss, Moshe Arens, was back in Jerusalem, and so it was Netanyahu who was in charge of the embassy.

Netanyahu’s advice to Begin, according to a source in close contact with the future prime minister that week, was to keep calm despite his feelings of betrayal. Netanyahu advised Begin to say that there are positives and negatives in the plan and the two leaders needed to sit together and discuss it. Meanwhile, he suggested saying Reagan had put the proverbial ball in the Arabs’ court and Israel was awaiting their response.

Netanyahu, like some others around Begin as well as leading pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington, was confident that the Arabs would eventually reject any proposal for a conflict-ending peace with Israel, so Israel should mute its response and let the Arabs play the role of spoiler.

But Begin was too deeply offended by Reagan’s snub and wanted to make sure his rejection came through loud and clear. One of the Likud’s young princes later told me he advised Begin, “If you have to say no, coat it with as much sugar as possible.” Begin rejected that advice as well. He wanted no misunderstandings.

Begin called it “the saddest day” of his life as prime minister. Reagan’s treatment of Israel — particularly his letting the “anti-Israel, Islamic fanatics” of Saudi Arabia “determin(e) our future” while concealing the plan from Israel — was “entirely unacceptable,” Begin said. The Reagan plan, he said, “would endanger our very existence.”

Netanyahu’s advice to Begin was sound and prophetic. Begin, with his hasty, angry rejection, wound up taking most of the blame for the failure of the Reagan plan. The larger portion of responsibility belonged to Reagan for his mishandling of the proposal, which included attempting to pressure Israel by cutting aid. And plenty of blame goes to the Arabs who kept Reagan dangling for six months before refusing to give him the backing he expected.

There’s a lesson here for both Obama and Netanyahu: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.

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