Virtually every American president in living memory has, like Sisyphus, pushed the boulder of the Israel-Arab conflict up to the top of the hill, only to see it roll to the bottom again over his toes. Thus, as President-elect Barack Obama ponders his Middle East options, he would be well advised to take a particularly close look at the single most ambitious peace initiative ever devised - that of president Ronald Reagan in 1982 who, at one swoop, sought to resolve the conflict once and for all.
This is what happened: August 31, 1982 was a Tuesday, and on that day Samuel Lewis, the US ambassador to Israel, received an "Eyes Only, Top Secret" instruction from Reagan to personally deliver an urgent letter to prime minister Menachem Begin, who was vacationing in Nahariya. Knowing he was about to intrude on Begin's well-earned rest after the strains and the stresses of the just ended war in Lebanon - code-named Operation Peace for Galilee - it was with enormous reluctance that Lewis picked up the phone to ask for an appointment, particularly since he was not entirely happy with the instructions he'd received. But who was he to question a presidential order?
"Hello, this is the American ambassador speaking," said Lewis into the phone. "Please forgive me but..."
"Ah, Mr. Lewis, how are you?" answered Aliza Begin in her tobacco roughened voice.
"I'm well, thank you. I do apologize..."
"I presume it's not me you want to talk to, but my husband. Hold on, I'll call him."
He felt a little hot under the collar as he listened to the background talk of Mrs. Begin telling Begin that the American ambassador wanted to talk to him on the phone.
"Sam, good afternoon. How can I help you?"
The premier sounded in fine fettle. He had reason to be buoyant, for though Operation Peace for Galilee had turned out to be bloodier than he'd hoped and prayed for, its outcome was, by his lights, a resounding victory.
"Forgive me, Mr. Prime Minister," said Lewis, "I wouldn't be bothering you, but I've just received instructions..."
"Speak up, Sam, the line is not very good."
"I said I've just received instructions to deliver to you personally a most urgent message from the president."
The premier sighed: "I hear what you say, Sam, but please understand, these have been rather stressful weeks, and I'm taking a few days' rest. So I hope whatever the message is can wait a few days."
"I'm afraid not, sir."
The premier sounded put out. "Sam, the last holiday I took was four years ago. I simply need a vacation, and I'm sure the president will appreciate that."
"I understand, but..."
"And I chose to come here to Nahariya so that everybody should know that things are quiet again on our northern border. So, I suggest we meet after I return to my desk in a few days' time."
Lewis's hands went clammy: "In normal circumstances I'd do that Mr. Prime Minister, but this really can't wait. My instructions are from the president himself."
Begin capitulated with a grunt: "In that case I suppose you'll have to do what you've been told to do."
"Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. I'll leave Tel Aviv right away and be with you in a couple of hours."
"I shall be expecting you," said a highly irked Begin.
SAM LEWIS was about to perform one of the more distasteful duties of his career. He was to go through the motions of consulting with the prime minister about a blueprint for a Middle East peace which carried the imprimatur of the president himself. He was to tell Begin that Reagan intended to make his peace plan public in a nationwide address within the next 72 hours, hence the hurry. And while he was to assure the prime minister that he would report back everything he said concerning the presidential plan, he was to leave no impression that the plan itself was open to modification.
The letter in effect said that while the US had hitherto functioned as mediator, it was now publicly expressing its own view. And that view was that for peace to endure it must involve Jordan as well as the Palestinians. The preferred American solution was not a Palestinian state since it would not be viable, but rather a transitional five-year period of Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, evolving into a political association with Jordan. Moreover, the US would not support any further Jewish settlement in these areas during the transition period.
Identical demarches were being made at exactly the same time by the American ambassadors in Riyadh, Cairo and Amman which, unlike Jerusalem, were in the picture.
As he was being driven along the coastal highway to Nahariya, Lewis read and reread the presidential letter and its attendant talking points, and the more he studied them the more irritated he became. The talking points appeared to him to be ineptly and inappropriately phrased, couched (as he was later to learn) in the identical language as that employed by his ambassadorial colleagues in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - as if Menachem Begin could possibly be swayed by the exact same arguments as tailored to appeal to the Arab mind and interest.
Lewis could only assume that the recently appointed secretary of state, George Shultz, was a man of such high purpose and hidebound integrity that he mistakenly believed it was imperative that all his ambassadors follow the exact same script so that no one could later accuse him of double-dealing.
The ambassador was also chagrined at not having been consulted more than perfunctorily about a peace plan which elaborated in far greater detail than any previous American initiative a solution to the most tenacious complexities of the political and territorial issues at stake, and this without even attempting to solicit the thinking of the one party whose stakes were arguably the highest: Israel. He bridled at having been excluded from the tightly-knit coterie which Shultz had gathered around him - and whom Shultz had sworn to absolute secrecy - when he was the best qualified to offer a significant input on the Israeli aspect of things, and the most competent to advise the president and the secretary on how and when to present the plan to a man of the likes of Menachem Begin.
As in life, so in diplomacy, timing can be as important as substance, and in this instance the timing was abysmal. In Lewis's view this was the worst of times to expect Israel to make enormous sacrifices and take tremendous risks in surrendering the West Bank and the Gaza Strip when the dust of the Lebanon war had hardly settled, when the nation was still mourning its dead and when the Israeli Right and the Israeli Left were locked in a furious tug of war over the human cost of the war, the excessive length of the war and the political gains of the war.
Such were his troubled thoughts as his car drew up to a small boarding house whose faÃ§ade was the color of diluted mustard, on a partially paved Nahariya street with a partial view of the sea. Aliza Begin, sensibly dressed in a housecoat and slippers, came padding to the door to usher him in, and the prime minister received him with a gush of hospitality.
"Welcome, Sam," he chirped, hand outstretched, rising from his armchair.
"I really am sorry, Mr. Prime Minister to disturb you..."
"Say no more about it. You have your duty to perform, and if your duty can't wait, you must perform it."
LEWIS HAD never seen the premier looking so relaxed. Instead of his usual suit and tie he was wearing a sports shirt and slacks, and the spontaneity of his reception, warmed all the more by Mrs. Begin's freshly-brewed tea, made him feel particularly bad, given the severity of the mission he'd been instructed to perform.
"Well, Sam," said the prime minister after a pleasant preliminary chitchat about this and that, "what's on president Reagan's mind that can't wait?"
"I am instructed by the president to deliver this to you, Mr. Prime Minister," said Lewis gravely, handing over the letter.
The premier adjusted his spectacles, drew the page to his face, and began studying it with intense concentration, searching for the meaning behind the words. And the more he did so the more his brow puckered and his face dropped, so that by the time he reached the president's signature his features were a scowl and his mouth thin with displeasure.
"Sam," he heaved, "this is the saddest day of my life since I became prime minister. Could you not have allowed us to enjoy our Peace for Galilee victory for just a day or two longer? Did you have to bring this to me now?"
And then, eyes as granite as his face, he flared, "Mr. Ambassador, is this it, or do you have anything orally to add?"
"Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, I do," answered Lewis hiding a thick swallow, and he proceeded to read out his talking points, causing the expression on the prime minister's face to mutate from anger to angst and back again.
At one point, when the ambassador read how Washington was consulting simultaneously with Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the presidential plan, Begin became so irked that he bit his lip, and said between clenched teeth, "Did I hear you say you were consulting with Saudi Arabia? What on earth does Saudi Arabia have to do with peace with Israel? Are you telling me that your superiors in Washington are involving those anti-Israel, Islamic fanatics in determining our future, our very fate?"
"My instructions state..."
"I hear exactly what your instructions state, Mr. Ambassador. You have told me that Washington has been consulting with everybody but with the government of Israel about a presidential initiative which concerns Israel most of all but about which my government knows least of all."
The ambassador held his tongue. He was handling his emotions with rubber gloves and tongs.
Begin threw him a livid look, and with scathing bitterness said, "Please inform the president that I have read his letter and am most unhappy both with its contents and its implications. I have also listened very carefully to your oral message and am extremely upset by its contents. You may tell the president that I am astonished that his government did not see fit to indicate that such an initiative was in the making, nor consult with the government of Israel at any stage of its elaboration. This is entirely unacceptable. The whole initiative is utterly contrary to all our understandings with your country. Of course, I will consult with my cabinet, and then give you a response. We, being a democracy - unlike those others with whom your government has seen fit to consult - necessitates my being given time before giving a formal answer."
"I understand," said Lewis - he really did - "but I am required to tell you that the president intends to make his plan public within the next 72 hours."
"In that case I ask you to please ask the president, on my behalf, to defer his speech for five or six days so as to enable me to return to Jerusalem and convene the cabinet for a full debate."
"I will certainly report your request, Mr. Prime Minister, but I have no way of knowing if the president can wait that long. He is very sensitive to premature leaks."
With weary dignity and in a voice full of entreaty, Begin said, "Sam, this plan has been thrust upon us. It bears upon our very existence. I think president Reagan owes me at least that much, to give my government time to render a considered response."
"I promise I will do my very best," said the ambassador rising. "And again, forgive me for interrupting your holiday for this purpose."
"So do I, Sam. So do I," muttered a nettled and gritty premier.
THE NEXT evening, Wednesday, the ambassador received a most urgent and highly classified cable from Washington. Upon reading it his left eyebrow rose a fraction, his heart missed a beat, and he muttered an "Oh-my-God" sigh of dismay as he instructed his secretary to connect him to the prime minister in Nahariya: "Good evening Mrs. Begin. Forgive me for disturbing you again. It's Sam Lewis. May I..."
"Hold on. My husband is right here. Menachem, pick up the extension. It's Mr. Lewis."
"Hello, Sam. You have news?"
"I do, Mr. Prime Minister, and I'm afraid it's not as good as I would have wished." Silence. "Mr. Prime Minister, are you there?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Ambassador, I am here, waiting to hear what you have to tell me." The spike of reproach in his voice was palpable.
"My instructions are to tell you that the president is unable to postpone his public address as you requested."
"Why not?" Begin's bitterness spilled into Lewis's ear.
"Because some of its substance has been leaked and the president has, therefore, decided to deliver his speech this very evening, Washington time."
"This very evening, before my cabinet has an opportunity to deliberate upon it tomorrow morning?"
"I'm, afraid so, Mr. Prime Minister. I'm sorry."
"As well you might be, Mr. Ambassador." Begin's voice suddenly hardened ruthlessly. "You will please convey to the president that I am hurt to the core. And tell him our cabinet will convene tomorrow as planned, and then we shall provide your government with our official response. Good night!"
The response came in the form of a meticulously detailed and comprehensive refutation of every single proposal of the president's plan, alongside a letter, which read in part:
"Dear Ronâ€¦ In face of the fact that there was no prior consultation the US government adopted the position that the 'West Bank' be reassociated with Jordan. What some call the 'West Bank,' Mr. President, is Judea and Samaria, and this simple historic truth will never change. There are cynics who mock history. I stand by the truth - the truth that millennia ago there was a Jewish kingdom of Judea and Samaria, where our kings knelt to God, where our prophets brought forth the vision of eternal peace, where we developed our rich civilization which we took with us in our hearts and minds on our long global trek for over 18 centuries and, with it, we came back home...
"Geography and history have determined that Judea and Samaria are mountainous country; two-thirds of our population lives in the Coastal Plain below. From those mountains you can hit every city, every town, each township and village, not to speak of our principal airport in the plain below. We used to live penned up into eight miles from the seashore and now, Mr. President, you suggest that we return to almost that same situation. Under no circumstances shall we accept such a possibility ever arising; it would endanger our very existence.
"Mr. President, you and I chose to call our countries 'friends and allies.' Such being the case, a friend does not weaken his friend, and an ally does not put his ally in jeopardy. This would be the inevitable consequence were the 'positions' transmitted to me on August 31, 1982 by Ambassador Lewis to become reality. They won't.
"L'ma'an Zion lo echeshe, u'l'ma'an Yerushalayim lo eshkot - For Zion's sake I will not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest' (Isaiah, chapter 62).
"Yours respectfully and sincerely, Menachem."
The writer was on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.