Israel must work with the White House, but prepared to say 'no' - opinion

If Israel’s core national security is on the line, our prime minister must be prepared to say “no” to the president, even when it means injecting tension into the relationship.

 FORMER PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu with former US president Donald Trump in Jerusalem during Trump’s visit to Israel in 2017. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
FORMER PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu with former US president Donald Trump in Jerusalem during Trump’s visit to Israel in 2017.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Mike Herzog has taken up his post as head of Israel’s Embassy in Washington, and from the restarted nuclear talks with Iran to the possible reopening of a US consulate in Jerusalem, our new ambassador has many serious issues on his plate. But at least there is one problem that Herzog does not have: he is not the Jewish state’s representative to an American administration loathed by American Jews.

That was a headache shared by at least two of Herzog’s predecessors, Sabra Yitzhak Rabin and the Florida-born Ron Dermer. Both served as the Jewish state’s chief diplomat at a time when American Jews were overwhelmingly negative about the Republican occupant of the White House – Rabin during the presidency of Richard Nixon, Dermer during Donald Trump’s time in office.

Polls show that 80% of American Jews were glad when Trump departed the White House. In contrast to their Israeli cousins, most American Jews were highly critical of Trump’s performance in office and eagerly embraced Joe Biden’s candidacy. But more than most, the 79-year-old Biden knows that Trump was not the only president to exit Washington under a cloud. Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, parallel to Nixon’s second term reelection landslide, and he was there to witness firsthand Nixon’s political implosion.

Like Trump, Nixon faced impeachment. Unlike Trump, Nixon was forced to resign, his years in office forever tainted by break-ins, wiretapping, slush funds, conspiracy, and cover-ups.

Yet the presidents who followed Nixon, Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter, did not automatically jettison Nixon’s policies. On the contrary, détente with the Soviet Union, the breakthrough with China, and the Middle East diplomacy that led to the first Israeli-Egyptian disengagement agreement were all among the policies that Nixon’s two successors retained and developed. Nixon’s presidency might have been discredited, but that did not prevent it from receiving credit where credit was due.

 FORMER US PRESIDENT Donald Trump attends his first post-presidency campaign rally, in Wellington, Ohio, in June.  (credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON) FORMER US PRESIDENT Donald Trump attends his first post-presidency campaign rally, in Wellington, Ohio, in June. (credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)

As with Nixon, not everything Trump did was a terrible mistake. From the perspective of US-Israel relations and American Middle East policy, Trump’s term contained many elements appreciated by Israelis and American Jews alike.

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the moving of the US Embassy were undoubtedly historic decisions acclaimed across the political divide.

The Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, and the agreements with Morocco and Sudan, demonstrated progress in Middle East peace not seen for decades.

Israelis instinctively supported the “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, welcoming the withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the targeting of Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani. 

Acknowledging the Golan Heights as part of sovereign Israel was similarly applauded.

The administration’s staunch defense of Israel at the United Nations was much appreciated, Nikki Haley achieving rock star status in Israel and the pro-Israel community.

Even Trump’s much-belittled plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace contains significant security safeguards absent in other international proposals for a two-state solution.

Should all this be negated merely because it is associated with the vilified former president? As with Nixon, Trump’s failings should not automatically tarnish his entire policy agenda, nor should they delegitimize the Israeli leadership that worked with him.

Despite the very tangible support Nixon gave Israel, most notably the Yom Kippur War American airlift of October 1973 that resupplied the IDF with desperately needed munitions and equipment, American Jewry was nevertheless happy to see Nixon go in August 1974.

And although he appointed Jews to senior positions in his administration, including Henry Kissinger as the first-ever Jewish secretary of state, many in the community were convinced Nixon was an antisemite (tapes of his Oval Office conversations echo with such prejudice).

Yet American Jews put their disapproval of Nixon aside, accepting that prime minister Golda Meir and her two ambassadors, Rabin and Simcha Dinitz, needed to work effectively with the Nixon White House. Those accusing the Israeli government of being overly supportive of Nixon had only limited traction, it being widely presumed – notwithstanding the community’s critical stance on Vietnam, support for civil rights, and abhorrence of the Watergate scandal – that Israel’s national interests demanded that it forge a strong partnership with the president and his administration.

Some 50 years on, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ron Dermer were blamed for being too close to a president perceived by many in the community as being a crypto-antisemite (Trump’s family aside), and of empowering racist white nationalists (reminiscent of Nixon’s Southern strategy). For these critics, Netanyahu was undeserving of the empathy received by Meir, Dermer of the consideration afforded Rabin.

But if some influential American Jews were unforgiving, countless foreign policy professionals remained impressed, Dermer’s good connections with the Trump White House being the envy of Washington-based career diplomats.

While serving as Israel’s ambassador in London, I heard praise in the Foreign Office for Dermer’s successful relationship-building with the Trump team. This when the UK newspapers were reporting that Her Majesty’s ambassador miscalculated, placing all his eggs in Hillary Clinton’s basket. Following her electoral defeat, the British diplomat was apparently forced to play catch-up, hastily updating his contacts to include members of the incoming Republican team. (The same ambassador was later forced to resign when his disparaging comments about Trump were made public.)

While forging good ties with the White House is crucial, if Israel’s core national security is on the line, our prime minister must be prepared to say “no” to the president, even when it means injecting tension into the relationship.

In 1969, Meir rejected a Nixon administration peace plan that she thought demanded significant Israeli concessions without corresponding movement from Egypt. In 2015, Netanyahu famously addressed Congress, speaking out against president Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. And with the resumption of the talks this week, Naftali Bennett reiterated that if the Americans return to that same deal, Israel will neither be bound by it, nor will it prevent our “freedom to act.”

Much can be gained from remembering a central precept of the US-Israel relationship: it is the American people’s task to elect their president, and it is the obligation of the Israeli prime minister and Israel’s ambassador to build a close as possible working partnership with whomever that choice might be, while vigorously standing up for Israel’s vital interests. That is what Meir-Rabin-Dinitz did. That is what Netanyahu-Dermer did. That is what Bennett-Herzog need to do now.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.