Washington Watch: When Begin rejected Bibi’s good advice

Netanyahu has made clear by his actions he opposes Palestinian statehood, which is the sine qua non for peace with the Palestinians.

January 9, 2019 21:32
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)


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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Right prefer the status quo. In fact, instead of ceding any land, the prime minister this week was pressing the Trump administration in the person of White House national security adviser, John Bolton, to recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, a move certain to inflame regional tensions.

Netanyahu has made clear by his actions he opposes Palestinian statehood, which is the sine qua non for peace with the Palestinians.

The emerging US strategy involves giving the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians a stake in drafting the plan so they will then sell – or impose – it on their Palestinian brethren. They know that’s a non-starter, but they also know that’s what Trump and his trusty trio of Orthodox Jewish negotiators – two lawyers from his business days and his son-in-law – want. The views of all three are in line with, if not to the right of, Netanyahu.

The Palestinians know from bitter experience that Trump holds them in such contempt that they can only come off worse than the current status quo in the new plan. In fact, the PA isn’t even on speaking terms with top administration policymakers.

The peace camps on both sides have been decimated and discouraged for so long they barely exist; they only know whatever Trump proposes can only be worse, given his well-established biases and ignorance.

Bibi is not religious, but he devoutly prays that Trump will pass over the April Israeli elections before unveiling his deal of the century that will bring everlasting peace to the Middle East, as he has done for the Korean peninsula. The PM is also praying that the elections will force Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to delay announcing whether he will indict Netanyahu in any of three major corruption cases.

Putting off the prosecutors is something Trump can relate to and that may be enough to keep his plan on the shelf.

Releasing the plan before the election could make it an issue in the vote, and that will only doom it – if that’s not already pre-ordained – because Bibi’s base, the settlers, the national camp and the religious are not just uninterested, but sure to be adamantly opposed even to a plan weighted heavily in favor of the Netanyahu government.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly threatens to end security cooperation and economic ties with Israel unless peace negotiations resume. He’s bluffing. He knows there can and will be no resumption any time soon, and security cooperation and economic ties with Israel are what keeps his and his Fatah faction in control of the West Bank in the face of Hamas threats.

When Trump does get around to unveiling his historic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that confounded all his predecessors, I expect Bibi will be smart enough to say what Trump wants to hear.

Bibi’s response won’t be the truth – that the plan is dead on arrival. Instead, he will more likely take advice that he once gave Menachem Begin but which prime minister foolishly rejected – to say little and let the other side take the blame for its demise.

Then, as now, it is unlikely the president had bothered reading the peace plan proffered in his name but had merely been briefed in outline form.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Trump had reputations for short attention spans and disinterest in detail. But for Reagan, the plan was the work of experienced professionals and a respected secretary of state. For Trump, it is his son-in-law and a band of inexperienced amateurs.

The Reagan Plan had been vetted with the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians but kept secret from Israel until it was made public on September 1, 1982. US Ambassador Sam Lewis unveiled it for Begin, who’d been vacationing in Nahariya, near the Lebanese border.

Begin was outraged and wanted to reject it outright immediately. His closest advisers tried to calm him down.

I was at my desk as legislative director of AIPAC when the news came in, and my boss, Tom Dine, was on vacation. So was Ambassador Moshe Arens, who was back in Israel. I called his deputy at the Israeli Embassy, Netanyahu, to compare notes and talk about our responses.

We had both come to the same conclusion: Arafat and PLO were bound to reject any American plan, so let them take the fall for killing the Reagan initiative. Instead of saying yes or no, we both felt – and that was AIPAC’s public position – it would be best to say, “the ball is in Jordan’s court,” since Jordan was at the time the “other side” speaking for the Palestinians.

Netanyahu told me he passed that advice to Begin, through Arens, who I understood shared his view.

Begin didn’t like that idea, I was told by others also meeting with him. He wanted to nip it in the proverbial bud. Ehud Olmert, a future prime minister, later told me that he advised Begin, “If you feel you have to say no, coat it with as much sugar as possible.” Begin overruled that, Olmert told me, because the PM wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding of his position.

He paid twice for his bluntness. First, when the Reagan’s hapless national security adviser, William Clark, tried to get Congress to retaliate by cutting aid to Israel it had already approved. Republican senators killed the move in a closed-door meeting of the Appropriations Committee. Secretary of State George Shultz was out of the country at the time, and when contacted by senators, told them he opposed Clark’s move.

But by then Begin, in his anger and haste, had been blamed for creating more unnecessary friction (hard feelings over the AWACS fight the year before still festered) in an already troubled relationship with the Reagan administration.

I suspect Netanyahu learned an important lesson from Menachem Begin and the Reagan peace plan. When faced with a presidential proposal he opposes, I expect Bibi will follow the good advice Begin rejected: Don’t say no when the other guy will do it for you.

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