A Lesson in Standing Firm
by DAVID ISAAC
February 14, 2013
Elliot Abrams, a member of the National Security Council during the Bush years, recently came out with a book, "Tested by Zion," which deals with the Bush administration and the Arab-Israel conflict. His section on the bombing of the Syrian reactor offers a valuable lesson for Israel's leaders about standing firm, an oft-repeated theme in Shmuel Katz's writings.
In May, 2007, Abrams relates, then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan came to the White House with intelligence showing that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with North Korean help. Abrams sat in on the meetings in which the White House struggled with what to do. He describes the debate that developed over a military vs. a diplomatic option.
The diplomatic option involved going to the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Abrams felt this was "faintly ridiculous" as Israel wouldn't accept it, having been down that road before. Its main advocates were Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Although their reasons seemed "flimsy," at least to Abrams, President Bush sided with Rice. "I was astounded and realized I had underestimated Rice's influence even after all this time. The president had gone with Condi," Abrams writes.
Abrams was in the room when President Bush told then-Israeli president Ehud Olmert that the U.S. would announce a campaign involving the U.N. Security Council and the IAEA.
Abrams expected Olmert to play for more time, but Olmert surprised him. "He reacted immediately and forcefully. George, he said, this leaves me surprised and disappointed. And I cannot accept it. We told you from the first day, when Dagan came to Washington, and I've told you since then whenever we discussed it, that the reactor had to go away. Israel cannot live with a Syrian nuclear reactor; we will not accept it. It would change the entire region and our national security cannot accept it. You are telling me you will not act; so, we will act."
The rest is known. Israel destroyed the al-Kibar reactor. Abrams wondered how the president would react. Would Israel's refusal to toe the line result in more American pressure? Abrams was in the Oval Office for that conversation, too. Rather than anger, Bush listened calmly to Olmert, hung up the phone and said, "That guy has guts."
Shmuel would have been pleased at this example of Israel successfully resisting U.S. pressure in order to do what was in its national interests. He was witness to many instances of what happened when Israel did not stand firm: Israel's position grew worse. As he wrote in "The Prime Minister is Heading for a Trap" (The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 1978):
Israel's status in Washington has deteriorated considerably ever since her leaders manifested the policy of subservience (or "co-ordination") to American official "ideas", and the extent of their readiness to bend their declared political principles - beginning (in September 1977) with the grotesque idea of confining settlements in military camps (in Judea and Samaria). This provided the first signal to Washington that it is possible to achieve retreats by this government from the policy of the straight back and common sense.
Similarly, in "The Vance Team Prepares the Landmines" (The Jerusalem Post, August 18, 1978), Shmuel warned the Israeli government not to go to Camp David, as it had by then become evident that Egypt's true intentions had nothing to do with peace:
It should be clear to [the members of Israel's government] that every present retreat from positions held, every concession, will not only add to the difficulties of the inevitable external struggle, but will gradually weaken the spirit of the people, sowing fatalism and skepticism - those most dangerous of internal enemies.
Sadly, Israel's leaders collapse under pressure more often than not. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin practically made capitulation his policy. In "Rabin's Risks Won't Bring Peace" (The Jerusalem Post, April 2, 1993), Shmuel relates how Rabin stumbled onto the 'secret' to getting along with the U.S. back in August, 1975.
[Relations] had been at a very low ebb because of his earlier rejection of the demand by Secretary of State Kissinger -- who had been primed by Egyptian president Sadat -- for territorial concessions in Sinai. So, in August, the Rabin government agreed to give up what in March he had described as territory "vital to Israel's security" -- which included the Gidi and Mitla passes, and also the Abu Rodeis oilfield. (Loss of Abu Rodeis compelled Israel to spend billions a year on oil.) In a twinkling, then, relations improved ...
So, coming to power in 1992 with sweet recollections of 1975, Rabin made plain that his most important objective was to coordinate policy with the U.S. He lost no time in taking the first crucial steps toward "freezing the settlements" in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Then he launched his publicity campaign for territorial surrender on the Golan.
If Olmert, widely panned as a mediocre leader, could adopt, however briefly, "the policy of the straight back and common sense," surely those leaders of whom more is expected, can do much better.