Monday, May 24, 2010

Begin Didn't Fall

Carter thought Begin would fall fast, new documents show

US president Jimmy Carter’s administration tried to undermine prime minister Menachem Begin’s government from the moment he got elected in 1977, documents published by Yediot Aharonot over the weekend reveal.

The newspaper published a letter written to Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski by the head of the Mideast desk on the council, William Quandt, the day after Begin’s landmark first election victory, whose 33rd anniversary was marked by the Likud last week.

In the letter, Quandt suggests not putting too much pressure on Begin at first and “allowing him to make his own mistakes” that would encourage Israelis to elect a more dovish prime minister in a year or two. It shows how the Carter administration interpreted the transfer of power from Left to Right as temporary when, in hindsight, the Center-Right has been in power for all but six of the last 33 years.

“Much of our strategy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict has been predicated on the assumption that a strong and moderate Israeli government would at some point be able to make difficult decisions on territory and on the Palestinians,” Quandt wrote Brzezinski. “Now we face the prospect of a very weak coalition, a prolonged period of uncertainty, and an Israeli leadership which may be significantly more assertive in its policies concerning the West Bank, Palestinians, settlements and nuclear weapons.”

Quandt said that due to Begin’s election victory, chances for Middle East peace looked bleak. He cautioned against appearing to interfere in Israeli politics, but suggested doing just that.

“We should do nothing in public to indicate disappointment with the Likud victory,” he wrote. “Instead, we should continue to talk of the importance of [the peace process], the requirements of a comprehensive peace, and the need for flexibility.

“By our actions, we do not want to increase support for Begin, which might occur if we reassess our policy too quickly,” Quandt wrote.

“At the same time, Israeli voters should know that a hard-line government will not find it easy to manage the US-Israel relationship.

“Intransigence must be seen to carry a price tag, but we should not be seen as the bully. Begin should be allowed to make his own mistakes. If he takes positions in his talks with us that preclude the continuation of our peace initiative, we should not hesitate to explain what has happened. Israelis can then draw their own conclusions, and perhaps the next election in 1978 or 1979 will produce different results.”

Quandt suggested that American support for Begin’s government would be less than it was for its predecessors and expressed hope that this could allow the Carter administration to make contacts with Palestinians and sell arms to Egypt, who were both in a state of war with Israel at the time.

“We should not rush in these directions, but at the right time we may be able to act without fear of a serious domestic backlash,” he wrote.

The Carter administration even sponsored polls in Israel, a month after the election, that found that support for the Likud was already falling.

While the Carter administration was actively trying to undermine Begin, Brzezinski sent Begin a letter calling him “His Excellency,” praising his modesty and candor, and recalling past meetings “with pleasure.”

Herzl Makov, director-general of the capital’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center, whose researchers discovered the documents at the Carter Center in Atlanta, said they provided important lessons for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his current dealings with US President Barack Obama.

“It’s interesting to see history repeat itself,” Makov told The Jerusalem Post. “Just like we see now that the Carter administration made every mistake possible about the political situation in Israel, I think that in 30 years, studies will show that the Obama administration made the same mistakes. History will tell which administration was worse for Israel."
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