Analyze This: When presidents come a-calling

Nixon received a warm welcome from both leaders and peoples.

By
January 6, 2008 23:04
4 minute read.

In June 1974, when Richard Nixon arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport for the first-ever visit here by an American president in office, one of the main items on his agenda was the development of nuclear energy in the region - not to stop it, but to assist it. "Nixon due for 24-hour visit; military assistance pact seen; concern at atom aid for Egypt," read The Jerusalem Post's headline on June 16, on the eve of the president's arrival. That concern was not unwarranted. Before arriving in Israel, Nixon had stopped first in Cairo to meet with then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and in an attempt to woo Cairo further from the Soviet orbit, had offered to provide Egypt with nuclear reactors and technology. "The main catch," as TIME magazine helpfully noted that week, was "working out a foolproof safeguard system to guarantee that the Egyptians could not use the nuclear equipment to make atomic weapons." Not surprisingly, as TIME continued, "The prospect of the Arabs getting nuclear help from the US raised immediate alarm in Israel and in the US Congress. Democratic Senator Frank Church declared that Nixon had gone 'beyond propriety' in making the agreement, and Democratic Congressman Melvin Price, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, predicted that his group would have to hold thorough hearings to make sure that the safeguard measures were really foolproof before Congress would approve the step." Needless to say, this uniquely bad idea never got anywhere near that far; neither did Nixon's attempt to assuage Israeli fears when he touched down here the next day, by offering the same deal to the Rabin government. "Atom pact seen announced today," was one of The Jerusalem Post's headlines on June 17, the day of Nixon's historic 24-hour visit here. The article noted Jerusalem's surprise that "Egypt was conducting parallel negotiations, and [Israel] had certainly not expected to obtain the [nuclear] power station as part of a US package with Egypt." President George W. Bush's trip to the region this week, including his first visit to Israel while in office, is of course more concerned with limiting the spread of nuclear technology in this region - specifically in Iran - rather than encouraging it. But the president's visit here offers some interesting parallels to that ground-breaking trip by Nixon 34 years ago, and perhaps even more telling contrasts. Both men decided to make the journey in the last year of their administration - although Nixon, only two years into his second term, couldn't have known for sure then how the Watergate scandal would so soon afterwards abruptly shorten his presidential tenure. Although Bush's domestic troubles may not be so severe, his own low approval ratings, and a presidential campaign in which almost all the candidates are running from his legacy, must surely make traveling abroad in his last year in office seem as tempting a prospect as "impeachment diplomacy" was to Nixon in his final days. And indeed, Nixon received a warm and supportive welcome from both leaders and peoples in the Middle East that would have been unthinkable for him at home. The success of then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger in negotiating Israeli withdrawals from Egypt and Syria ensured a particularly warm welcome in the former, and a respectful reception in the latter. Although contemporary accounts describe the security as "unprecedented," Nixon rode in an open limousine through the streets of Cairo, cheered by crowds in the hundreds of thousands, some waving signs reading "We trust Nixon" and "God bless Nixon." The visit, dubbed by TIME "A Triumphant Middle East Hegira," was judged in contemporary press accounts as a success, so much so that "the President's aides were convinced that the accolades abroad would strengthen Nixon's hand in his battle to stave off impeachment." Needless to say, Bush can expect no similar such welcome in the streets of Egypt - even if he were to take to its streets, which of course he won't - and is skipping Syria altogether. In Israel, where feelings were decidedly mixed over the results of Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy, Nixon was still the recipient of widespread gratitude for the US airlift of arms during the Yom Kippur War. Bush is also appreciated here for the support he gave Israel during the battle against Palestinian terror and the Second Lebanon War. But the president chose to make his first visit here a little too late to receive the kind of outright affection he would surely have enjoyed earlier in his administration. In particular, many of those Israelis who share an overall ideological outlook with Bush and most appreciated him a few years ago, now bitterly oppose the support he is giving to the current peace negotiations, as well as his strong personal backing of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Some members of this camp are also using Bush's visit here as a chance to press the case of Jonathan Pollard on him, surely the last issue the president wants to be confronted with on this trip. Bush no doubt prefers the focus to be on his efforts to contain Iran, and his final-quarter attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. And he's surely not the first chief executive to visit here in his waning days with that dream. "Nixon's determined efforts to put his prestige behind a new US policy in the Middle East, one aimed at accomplishing the balancing act of supporting both the Arabs and the Israelis simultaneously, marks just the beginning of the search for a lasting peace in the area," noted TIME in 1974. "Cease-fires and disengagements of forces are one thing, but even more difficult problems lie ahead. What is to become of the Palestinian refugees? How much Arab territory should Israel give up? Who is to rule Jerusalem?" Those were good questions back then - and Nixon never had nearly the time to move beyond that beginning. What are the odds that George W. Bush, as he follows in those footsteps, has the time he needs to reach the ending? Calev@jpost.com


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