(photo credit: AP)
Last Wednesday night, hours after former US president Gerald R. Ford died at 93, I found myself at the Gielgud Theater in London's West End being captivated by Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon.
It's the story of the televised interviews with the disgraced Richard Nixon conducted in 1977 by British talk-show personality David Frost. Nixon had been largely incommunicado since resigning the presidency on August 8, 1974, after the House Judiciary Committee recommended he be impeached.
Michael Sheen plays the hyperactive Frost adroitly, capturing his mannerisms, while Frank Langella plays Nixon in all his pathos. The original televised interviews were culled from 28 hours of taped cross-examinations conducted over 12 days in San Clemente, California.
The flamboyantly Jewish Hollywood agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar is portrayed negotiating the deal that made the interviews possible (and the ex-president $600,000 richer).
The premise of the play, which mixes fact with fiction, is that by pardoning Nixon on September 8, 1974 rather than forcing him to stand trial, Gerald Ford deprived America of its chance of moral and psychological closure over its long Watergate nightmare.
In the playwright's mind, the Frost/Nixon interviews were necessary so that Nixon would publicly confess.
Paradoxically, to my mind, rather than providing left-liberals with the closure they sought, Nixon's mea culpa - "I let down my friends, I let down our country" - put him on the road to political rehabilitation. He went on to publish his memoirs and a series of books on world politics. By the time he died, in 1994, he was an elder statesman - almost as if Watergate had never happened. President Bill Clinton delivered Nixon's eulogy, with four ex-presidents in attendance.
BUT I LEFT the Gielgud thinking more about the newly-departed Ford than about Nixon or Frost.
Ford's presidency lasted a mere 896 days. He completed Nixon's term, famously met Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at Vladivostok, had the dubious distinction of being the White House incumbent when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and signed the Helsinki Accords, which recognized the East-West divide but also obligated the Soviet Union to respect human rights. This in turn boosted the Soviet Jewry movement.
Ford had earlier signed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment into law, which made most-favored-nation trading status (something the Soviets desperately wanted under detente) dependent on their willingness to open the iron gates and allow Jewish emigration.
Nevertheless, at the time I was convinced that Ford was bad for the Jews and bad for Israel, and voted against him. When he was defeated by Jimmy Carter on November 2, 1976, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Now with Ford dead, and Carter, at 82, writing books the likes of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, I find myself wondering whether I did wrong by Ford.
BUT YOU'VE got to recall the context. Months after Ford took over from Nixon, the October 1974 Arab summit in Rabat gave the Palestine Liberation Organization an internationally stipulated role as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian Arabs. Their cause was on the ascendant. The UN General Assembly invited the PLO to take part in its sessions, culminating in Yasser Arafat's triumphant speech there on November 13, 1974.
The administration made all the right noises about the PLO, but granted it no fewer than 20 entry visas to attend the UN session. It also authorized UN ambassador John Scalli to meet with pro-PLO Arab-American lobbyists.
And, in December, vice-president-designate Nelson Rockefeller expressed affinity for the PLO position, observing that Israel "took the land" of the Palestinian Arabs. Speaking during his confirmation hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, Rockefeller said he didn't know whether he would recognize the PLO if he assumed the presidency.
The pro-Israel community was understandably getting nervous, so Republican Jewish macher Max Fisher set up a White House meeting between the Jewish leadership and Ford. The president reassured them that his administration would not court the PLO. That still left plenty of unease - about the administration's plan to sell F5E warplanes to Saudi Arabia, for instance.
By the start of 1975, it had become obvious that Ford would balance support for Israel with criticism of its West Bank policies, coupled with arms sales to pro-US Arab states.
WHEN SECRETARY of state Henry Kissinger's efforts to broker an Egyptian-Israeli deal in the Sinai faltered in March 1975, Ford's administration let it be known that Jerusalem was to blame. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had demanded, and Anwar Sadat had rejected, an arrangement that would have exchanged Israeli control of the Abu Rudeis oil fields plus the strategic Mitla and Gidi passes in return for an Egyptian pledge of non-belligerency.
Privately, Ford complained to Rabin: "I am disappointed to learn that Israel has not moved as far as it might."
All this - cozying up to moderate Arab states with weapons sales, generous visas for the PLO and a soon-to-be-unveiled policy "reassessment" - was largely the work of the Machiavellian Kissinger. To tighten the screws further, Kissinger refused to take calls from Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz.
Then the administration went public. In April 1975, Ford declared his "total reassessment" of US policy in the Middle East. American ambassadors from Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan were all summoned for talks at the State Department.
Kissinger also made a point of meeting with a group of foreign policy "wise men" including George Ball, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Averell Harriman and John McCloy - all of whom supported Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines.
Ford then used his connections with leading US Jews, hoping to get them to pressure Israel into being more forthcoming. He told Fisher: "Max, it's the most distressing thing that's happened to me since I became president. Rabin and [foreign minister Yigal] Allon misled us into thinking they would make a deal. I never would've sent [Kissinger] if I didn't think we had an agreement. The Israelis took advantage of us."
Ford spoke about the need for "evenhandedness" in US Middle East policy, insisting he would not meet with Rabin unless he also met with Arab leaders.
Reassessment eventually drew to a close; it had served its manipulative purpose. But relations between Kissinger and the pro-Israel community were at a nadir. When - with behind-the-scenes encouragement from the America Israel Public Affairs Committee - 76 US senators signed a letter critical of Ford, Kissinger went ballistic, telling Dinitz: "You'll pay for this! What do you think? [That] this is going to help you? This letter will cause people to charge that Jews control Congress."
On September 4, 1975, an Israeli-Egyptian Sinai Agreement was finally signed, the second following the Yom Kippur War. The deal called for a further Israeli pullback in the Sinai and a limited three-year non-belligerency pledge. Much to Jerusalem's consternation, no direct talks between Egypt and Israel had taken place. On the bright side, the US committed itself not to talk to the PLO so long as it didn't recognize Israel's right to exist. Kissinger would later deny that it was binding on future presidents.
WITH THE benefit of hindsight, it's clear that Ford's brief presidency adhered to the fundamental policy followed by every US administration since the 1967 Six Day War: getting Israel to withdraw from (most of) the captured territories in exchange for an accommodation with the Arabs - in other words, land for peace.
An independent Palestinian state was not then on the agenda, but forcing Israel out of Judea, Samaria and Gaza always had been. Ford's Middle East envoy William Scranton, for instance, declared - probably coining the phrase - that Jewish settlements in the territories were "obstacles to peace." Over the years, administrations may have differed over how best to implement this goal, but the essential objective would never change.
Ford's only full year in office, 1976, continued to be characterized by bumpy relations with the organized Jewish community. He repeatedly turned to Max Fisher and other shtadlanim to assuage the sensibilities of the pro-Israel community while simultaneously trying to get it to lobby in Jerusalem on behalf of the administration's policies.
WHICH BRINGS me to Jimmy Carter. As a Democratic presidential candidate, Carter, seeking a primary win in my home state of New York, actually told voters that he supported Israel's settlement activity and would never want to see it relinquish the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem.
He told Jewish audiences what we wanted to hear: Israel hadn't caused the Palestinian problem, so why was the Ford administration caving in to the Arabs' blackmail and selling them arms? Why didn't it support legislation opposed to the Arab boycott of Israel? And he said all this during an upsurge in Arab rioting in the territories.
On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan was challenging Ford for the nomination, and one of Reagan's foreign policy advisers, Jewish Republican lawyer Rita Hauser, was calling on Ford's State Department to stop "creeping toward tacit recognition" of the PLO.
That's particularly ironic because it was Hauser, acting as a private citizen (with the approval of the Carter administration), who was instrumental in facilitating US recognition of the PLO in December 1988.
Carter went on to win the Democratic nomination. Ford overcame Reagan, but was weakened by the intensity of the primary campaign. It would be Ford versus Carter in the 1976 presidential race.
Arab Americans announced their support for the "evenhanded" Ford. And I voted, naturally, for the "pro-Israel" Carter.
IT WOULD take me years to fully appreciate this fundamental fact: Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, US policy on the Arab-Israel conflict remains the same. Sure the personality of the president matters, but mostly on the margins.
America's perceived interests in the region dictate a certain course and Washington calibrates its commitment to Israel's survival against its other interests in the region.
US policy-makers adhere to a premise many of us in the pro-Israel community find dangerously naive: that the Arab-Israel conflict has shifted from a winner-take-all, zero-sum game to one that can be solved through compromise. Having embraced the idea that the Arabs no longer seek Israel's destruction, everything else - selling them warplanes, flirting with the PLO, pressuring Israel into vulnerable borders - falls into place.
I had been kidding myself into thinking that supporting Carter over Ford would bring America and Israel closer. From Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush, the American line has not wavered: Israel needs to withdraw from the Golan, the West Bank and Gaza.
It would not have mattered if Nixon had survived Watergate; if Reagan had defeated Ford that year for the Republican nomination and gone on to beat Carter.
When he finally did become president, Reagan sold the Saudis AWACs, visited Bitburg and, in the closing days of his administration, granted diplomatic recognition to the PLO - a necessary precursor to the Oslo Accords five years later.
I don't envy Americans who may want to consider support for Israel as they try to decide between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, between John McCain and John Edwards, between Joseph Biden and Mitt Romney, or between Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich.
It's likely to be a pointless exercise - the play's already scripted.