When Washington bridled and Begin fumed
Begin's 1981 Golan Law almost caused a potentially explosive situation with Reagan administration.
Shoulders stooped, dark shadows under his eyes, Menachem Begin sat slumped in a wheelchair, steeped in morose musings. Pain, physical and mental, swayed through his mind and body as he contemplated the diabolical happenings swirling around him in the closing months of 1981.
For one, he had slipped and broken his hip - hence the wheelchair and the physical pain. Second, his peace partner, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, had been assassinated. Third, his incessant efforts to reach an agreement on an autonomy plan for the Palestinians had stalled. Fourth, Syria had all but taken over Lebanon, and Yasser Arafat's PLO its southern reaches. Fifth, the Israeli-US relationship was souring, president Ronald Reagan warning against an Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Sixth, the national economy was in the doldrums. And seventh, his beloved wife, Aliza, was sick.
So, there he sat in the simply furnished apartment of his official Jerusalem residence, and brooded. The room was as quiet as a crypt, but for the purr of the radio broadcasting the evening news, to which he was hardly listening. But, suddenly, his ears prickled at the sound of the announcer quoting Syrian president Hafez Assad as saying he "would not make peace with Israel even in a hundred years." The premier picked up the phone to his longtime and most trusted aide, Yehiel Kadishai, and asked him to find out the current population of the Golan Heights, and call him straight back. This he did - 10,000-12,000 Druse were living on the Golan, and a few thousand Israeli settlers.
Begin closed his eyes and forced himself to think through his pain: The Golan Heights rose 300 meters over the farm-rich Hula Valley. Were it governed by a friendly neighbor, the escarpment would be of little military value, but in enemy hands it was a strategic nightmare. Its capture in the Six Day War put an end to years of Syrian harassment and bombardment of the villages and towns below. Now, Assad, the most intractable and intransigent of all the Arab leaders, was saying for the umpteenth time that Syria would never recognize the Jewish state. So why wait? Why leave this sparsely populated critically strategic plateau in a state of legal limbo under military administration when, by a simple act of legislation, it could be incorporated into Israel's sovereign law?
This is precisely what Begin did the following day: He pushed through a unanimous cabinet decision in the morning, a two-thirds Knesset majority in the afternoon and ignited a firestorm in Washington in the evening. "You know, Al," said president Reagan to his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, "this Golan business makes me mad. It has complicated Middle East peace-making endlessly."
"I agree," concurred an angry Haig, "particularly after we've recently signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the Israelis, which Begin pressed for. I assumed that that agreement would put paid to the Israeli penchant for taking us by surprise, and that they would fully consult with us before taking such a drastic unilateral action."
"Does the agreement oblige them to consult with us?" asked the president.
Haig shrugged, and his sharp eyes, set in a high strong-boned face, narrowed when he answered, "Well, nowhere does it say so specifically. The Israelis never actually promised to consult us, but we had every reason to understand that as strategic allies we would be consulted on matters which clearly affect our interests as well as theirs."
"So what do you propose?" The president popped a few jelly beans into his mouth.
Haig took his time answering, and when he did, his voice was pensive and measured: "Well, Mr. President, we have to convey to Mr. Begin a message sharp enough so that he'll sit up and take note, and not surprise us again."
"Such as what?"
"Such as suspending the strategic cooperation agreement until we conduct a serious review about our interpretations of it."
The president mulled and chewed and said, "You're right, Al. That's the way to go. Let's do it."
"I'll instruct our ambassador, Mr. President," said the secretary of state.
NEXT DAY the prime minister received ambassador Samuel Lewis in his private apartment. He was sitting in a chair, with one foot propped on a stool and, by him, a table covered with papers.
The men liked each other. Begin respected the 51-year-old, ebullient Texan's urbane and well-honed diplomatic skills. In the eight years he was to spend at his Tel Aviv posting, which spanned the Carter and the Reagan administrations, Lewis became so well connected and was so well trusted that frustrated politicians would occasionally unburden their souls to him and dole out confidences that were properly the preserve of hush-hush forums.
"Come on in, Sam," called Begin when Lewis appeared at the door accompanied by a note taker.
"How are you feeling, Mr. Prime Minister?" asked the ambassador solicitously, shaking him by the hand. He noted that the premier's cheekbones and chin were more pronounced than ever, and there was pain in his eyes.
"Much better, thank you," answered the premier, vainly trying to pump a bit of cheer into his voice. "The trouble is, I can't bend my leg. But you know me by now, Sam - a Jew bends his knee to no one but to God."
Whether this was a bit of banter or a declaration of defiance was hard to tell.
The prime minister invited Lewis to take a seat, stiffened, sat up, reached for the stack of papers on the table by his side, put them on his lap and in a face like stone and a voice like steel, resorted to histrionics as a vehicle of diplomacy by speaking nonstop for almost an hour, never once pausing to look at his notes, and beginning with a thunderous recitation of the perfidies perpetrated by Syria over the decades, and ending with: "Therefore, Mr. Ambassador" - that's what he called him whenever he was blasting off - "I have a very personal and urgent message to president Reagan which I want you to transmit immediately."
"Of course," said Lewis, having been through this sort of ritual before where everybody knew their roles and recited their lines.
"Mr. Ambassador, during the last six months the US government punished Israel thrice. On June 7 we destroyed the atomic reactor near Baghdad. It was an act of salvation in the highest sense but, nevertheless, you announced you were punishing us by breaching a written and signed contract for the delivery of F-16 aircraft."
"Not punishing you, Mr. Prime Minister, merely suspending..."
Begin galloped on in a tone that told Lewis this was no fleeting squall: "Not long passed and we, in self-defense - after a PLO massacre of our people, one of them an Auschwitz survivor - bombed the headquarters of the PLO in Beirut. Regretfully, there were civilian casualties, and again you punished us. You suspended delivery of F-15 aircraft."
"Excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister, it was not..."
"By what right do you lecture us on civilian casualties? We rack our brains to avoid civilian casualties. We sometimes risk the lives of our soldiers to avoid civilian casualties."
"Mr. Prime Minister, I must correct you..."
"A week ago, on the recommendation of the government, the Knesset adopted the Golan Law, and again you declare you are punishing us. What kind of language is this - punishing Israel? Are we a vassal state? Are we a banana republic? Are we 14-year-old boys that have to have knuckles slapped if they misbehave?"
"This is not a punishment, Mr. Prime Minister, it's merely a suspension until..."
"You cannot and will not frighten us with punishments, Mr. Ambassador. Threats will fall on deaf ears."
"But we've not used the term. The intention is to..."
"Excuse me, Mr. Ambassador, you announced that you are suspending the deliberations on the memorandum of understanding on strategic cooperation."
"We simply have to..."
"I regard your announcement as a renunciation of the agreement on the part of the American government. We shall not allow a sword of Damocles to hang over our heads. The people of Israel have lived for 3,700 years without a strategic agreement with America, and it will continue to live without it for another 3,700 years!"
"Please allow me to explain..."
"Moreover, in imposing upon us pecuniary sanctions you have broken the word of the president who said the United States intends to purchase from Israel military hardware to an amount of $200 million. Now you are saying this commitment will not be honored. Is this proper, Mr. Ambassador? Is it done? What are you trying to do, hit us in our pockets?"
"If only you'd allow me to..."
"In 1946 there lived in this house a British general whose name was Barker. Today I live in this house. After we blew up his headquarters in the sequestered part of the King David Hotel, Barker said, 'You can punish this race only by hitting them in their pockets,' and he issued an order to his British troops that all Jewish coffee shops were to be out of bounds. That was the Barker philosophy. Well, I now understand why the whole great effort in the Senate to win a majority for the arms deal with Saudi Arabia [the sale of highly sophisticated equipment] was accompanied by such an ugly anti-Semitic campaign."
"Yes so. First came the slogan, 'Begin or Reagan!' - the inference being that to oppose the deal with Saudi Arabia was tantamount to supporting a foreign prime minister while being disloyal to the president of the United States. Are such eminent senators as Kennedy, Jackson, Moynihan, Packwood and, of course, Boschwitz [a Jew], who expressed opposition to the deal, disloyal citizens? Are they? Then came another slogan: 'We will not allow the Jews to determine the foreign policy of the United States.' Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Ambassador: No one will frighten the great and free Jewish community of the United States. No one will succeed in intimidating them with anti-Semitic propaganda. They will stand by us. This is the land of their forefathers, and they have a right and a duty to support it."
"Mr. Prime Minister, you surely don't believe that..."
"We are being told the Golan Law adopted by the Knesset has to be rescinded. The word 'rescind,' Mr. Ambassador, is a concept from the time of the Inquisition. Our forefathers went to the stake rather than rescind their faith. We are not going to the stake, Mr. Ambassador."
"We are merely suggesting a review..."
"It is my firm belief there is not a man alive who can convince the Knesset to annul the Golan Law. So please tell the president that nothing and nobody can bring about its abrogation."
Ambassador Lewis clearly had had enough. Dispensing with even the pretense of nicety, he shot back: "Mr. Prime Minister, you have not allowed me to explain what I have to say. I shall certainly deliver your urgent and private message to the president. But in the meantime I have a message for you: Between friends and allies there should be no surprises. There should be consultations by either party on issues which affect the other's interests."
"Correct, but the surprise on this occasion was because we did not want to embarrass you by putting you in a predicament vis-a-vis the Arab capitals with which you have ties. Had we told you beforehand what we intended to do, you would have said no. We did not want you to have to say no and then proceed with the legislation, which is what we would have done under all circumstances."
Faced with this unyielding barrage, which to the ambassador seemed somewhat hyperbolic and, in part, even paranoid, he saw no point in carrying on, so he took his leave and set out for the drive back to his Tel Aviv embassy, to cable off his report. On the way out of Jerusalem he switched on the car radio and what he heard flummoxed him totally. It was the voice of the cabinet secretary repeating almost word for word in English, for the benefit of the foreign correspondents assembled outside Begin's residence, the fieriest of the fieriest all the passages of the premier's harangue.
THE WHITE HOUSE was livid. It deemed the language of the premier's message intemperate. It deemed its tone improper. And it deemed the treatment of its envoy an affront to America itself. But Begin refused to retract a single word.
Shortly thereafter, Ambassador Lewis escorted a senior senator to meet Begin and assess the frozen situation. When the meeting was done, the ambassador said, "Mr. Prime Minister, there is something I wish to talk to you about. It concerns me personally."
Begin gave him an amiable look, and said, "Go ahead, Sam. What's on your mind?" There was not the slightest hint of guile in his voice.
"It has to do with the handling of the urgent and private message you asked me to deliver to the president - the fact that you authorized the release of that message to the media almost immediately was, to put it mildly, a violation of every diplomatic norm and practice. And the way you did it made me feel I was being treated like an idiot."
"But surely, you realize there was nothing personal in what I said or did," said the premier, surprised at Lewis's rancor. "I considered your government's act of such grave national consequence that I felt compelled to fully inform our people of our stand, there and then - that we, too, have red lines."
"Yes, but hardly had I left Jerusalem I heard your spokesman on the radio quoting what you'd said to me almost word for word, in what was supposed to be a personal message to the president."
Begin pursed his lips in thought, and said, "I simply never thought of it in that light, Sam. My one consideration was that, given the sharpest difference of views we had - and still have - on a matter so vital to our future as the Golan Heights, I felt our public had a right to know exactly what was said, and where we stood. I apologize if I embarrassed you personally. Please, forgive me."
The tone of contrition in the prime minister's voice filled Sam Lewis with a sense of uncommon bemusement. For never did he believe that this proudest of men, Menachem Begin, was capable of such humble apology. It was something he still remembered when talking to me not very long ago.
The writer was on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.