Israel likes its U.S. presidents strong

The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

“Not worth five cents”

What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.

Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:

President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…

We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…

If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…

The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”

Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.

Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.

In his two memoirs, Eban recalled his astonishment at this apparent abdication:

I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….

I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.

The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.

The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.

After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing.

There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.

“Too big for business as usual”

In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.

In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”

Views differ differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, should it conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.

And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:

Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has urged that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”

Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 17. 

The non-Israeli ambassador

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is returning to Israel after more than four years of service. The American-born Oren (whom I’ve known for thirty years) told an Israeli reporter: “I’m still surprised that some people, even advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office, ask me if I’m Israeli.” Surprising indeed. Oren has lived in Israel since 1979, assumed Israeli citizenship, served as an Israeli paratrooper in Lebanon, raised his three children in the country, and even renounced his U.S. citizenship to become Israel’s ambassador in Washington.

Oren’s successor, American-born Ron Dermer, won’t escape the same prejudice. Past defense and foreign minister Moshe Arens was recently asked this question about Dermer’s appointment: “Dermer is 42 years old and lived in the United States until the age of 30, making him a kind of new immigrant. Is he the figure that Israel needs to represent us to the Americans?” (Dermer actually immigrated at the age of 25—seventeen years ago—and has already represented “us to the Americans” as economic attaché, requiring him to renounce his U.S. citizenship back in 2005.) Arens pointed to Dermer’s personal qualities, and added this clincher: “I appointed Netanyahu [in 1982] to be Israel’s deputy ambassador in Washington, and at the time people also talked about him being half-American, and how can he represent Israel.” (Netanyahu, born in Israel and raised partly in America, had acquired U.S. citizenship, which he renounced in 1982.) Arens, by the way, also grew up in the United States and held U.S. citizenship, which he renounced in order to serve in Israel’s Knesset. He later served as Israeli ambassador to the United States, so that Dermer is the third Israeli ambassador to Washington to have held and renounced U.S. citizenship.

No one would ask whether an Arab, female, or gay appointee could be an appropriate diplomatic representative of Israel, so this nativist view of “immigrants” must be one of the last prejudices in Israel that openly speaks its name.

“Mr. Israel”
Those who still hold it might consider the case of the most renowned Israeli ambassador to Washington: Abba Eban. Eban served as Israel’s first representative to the United Nations (from 1948) and concurrently as its second ambassador to Washington (from 1950). During that formative era in Israeli diplomacy, he became the familiar face and stirring voice of the Jewish state for American Jews, and “Mr. Israel” to the world.

Imagine his surprise, then, when in the spring of 1959, on the eve of his return to Israel, he was informed that he wasn’t a citizen of Israel, that he was ineligible to vote in Israeli elections and, more importantly, that he couldn’t run for Israel’s Knesset and thereby enter Israeli politics.

The back story? Eban was born in 1915 in South Africa, to Lithuanian Jewish parents who brought him to England the following year. In 1940, Eban joined the British Army, where he did intelligence chores in Egypt and Palestine, ultimately attaining the rank of major. Upon his demobilization in 1946, he joined the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, the precursor of the Israeli foreign ministry. The Jewish Agency, appreciating his talents and Zionist zeal, dispatched him to New York in 1947 to work on the United Nations partition resolution. A few days after Israel declared independence in May 1948, the new State of Israel named Eban its first representative to the UN. He immediately renounced his status as a British subject and returned his British passport. In 1950, Israel also appointed Eban ambassador to Washington, where he took up the challenge of turning Israel’s nascent relationship with the United States into something special.

Pressed into diplomatic service, Eban didn’t reside or keep a home in Israel in its first decade. He had first laid eyes on Palestine as a British officer in 1942, and from then and until his demobilization in 1946, he spent a total of only about three years in Jerusalem. When he joined the Jewish Agency in 1946, he went straight to London, then moved to New York in 1947, and finally settled in Washington in 1950. During the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants were becoming acculturated to Israel, Eban was being Americanized. “Insofar as an Israeli can ever feel at home outside Israel,” Eban later wrote, “it is in America that he feels less alienated from his environment than anywhere else.” Eban’s memoirs reveal a man entirely at home in America.

After more than a decade in the United States, Eban decided the time had come to make a bold move and enter Israeli politics. (He himself recognized that “I would soon lack an intimate relationship with the reality that I was supposed to represent.”) Promised a choice place on the Mapai party list for the November 1959 Knesset elections, he began to plan his political debut. Eban naturally assumed he had Israeli citizenship, because he carried an Israeli (diplomatic) passport. But when the matter was vetted, he learned that he could neither vote nor run for office. His diplomatic passport didn’t confer citizenship, and his name didn’t appear in the population and voter registry. He’d been out of the country on all the critical dates relevant to the citizenship law. Abba Eban, Israel’s most celebrated diplomat, wasn’t a citizen of Israel.

The Attorney General wrote to him in March 1959, proposing that he acquire citizenship under the Law of Return, by which any Jew could claim citizenship. Eban balked. He wanted to be regarded as a citizen of Israel from the date of its establishment, May 15, 1948. In a letter to Yitzhak Navon, bureau chief in the Prime Minister’s Office, he pointed out that Israel’s embassies were Israeli territory under international law, and that he’d been sent abroad by the State of Israel on official duty. It would be “difficult emotionally” for him to accept the solution proposed by the Attorney General. The newspaper Maariv, reporting the case, said that this route to citizenship would have seemed “ridiculous.” But Mapai’s opponents exploited the episode, claiming it would be absurd for someone who hadn’t lived in Israel as a citizen to land a seat at the cabinet table.

Eban couldn’t be made a citizen retroactively without leaving the impression that the law had been stretched for partisan political purposes. Was there another option that might spare him the indignity of becoming a “new immigrant” under the Law of Return? The 1952 nationality law, section 6(d), did confer on the interior minister the power to grant citizenship directly, “if there exists in his opinion a special reason.” Eban finally settled for this compromise and telegraphed a request to the interior minister, who granted him citizenship in May 1959, just before Eban left Washington. He could now stand for the Knesset in November. But he couldn’t vote: only those on the voting roles as of December 31, 1958 could do so, and Eban’s citizenship wasn’t retroactive. One of Eban’s supporters pointed to the irony: Eban could cast Israel’s ballot at the UN, but couldn’t cast his own ballot in Israel.

Eban didn’t mention the episode in his two memoirs, where he delved into every aspect of his public life in minute detail. (His authorized biographer, Robert St. John, touched on it in passing.) The story probably doesn’t deserve more than a footnote in any account of the sweep of Eban’s career, culminating in his dramatic role as Israel’s foreign minister in the 1967 war. But it’s a reminder of an attitude toward Eban that dogged him throughout that career. In a 1987 profile of Eban, the journalist who interviewed him expressed it succinctly: “I can’t shake the feeling that this man, who arrived in Israel decades ago, still hasn’t landed here.” That said as much about nativist prejudice as it did about Abba Eban.

By competence alone
So just how long does one have to live in Israel to represent it in Washington, New York, or anywhere else? The precedent set by Israel in dispatching Abba Eban, the non-Israeli ambassador of Israel, set the bar very low, and since then, each of the former Americans sent by Israel to Washington has surpassed it easily, by decades. And beyond counting years, the broader lesson is that Israel’s ambassadors should be judged strictly by their competence, not by whether they conform to some artificially construed and outdated notion of what constitutes “Israeliness.” A warm welcome home to Michael Oren and best wishes for success to Ron Dermer. And here’s to the memory of Abba Eban, who brilliantly represented the State of Israel in its first decade, without having lived there at all.

Sources: The letter from Eban to Navon, March 15, 1959, is in the Abba Eban Archives at the Truman Institute, Hebrew University, file C-297/F-3563. The resolution of the episode, with details, was reported in Maariv, May 25, 1959, p. 1; and Davar, May 26, 1959, p. 2. David Lazar wrote a strong article ridiculing how the revelation had been used by Mapai’s opponents, in Maariv, May 29, 1959, p. 3. The 1987 interview appeared in Maariv, April 10, 1987, weekend supplement, p. 8f. The episode is mentioned in passing by Robert St. John, Eban (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 351.

For a very good introduction to Eban, mostly by Eban himself, with comments by the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Henry Kissinger, view the clip embedded below (click here if you don’t see it).

Yitzhak Shamir and leadership

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks to a dinner of the Board of Governors of Shalem College (then in formation), Jerusalem, July 9, 2012. Present was board chairman Yair Shamir, whose father, the Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir, had passed away on June 30. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

In recent days, much has been written and said about Yitzhak Shamir, which is ironic, as Yitzhak Shamir was very taciturn and said little. The response to his passing has been nothing short of remarkable. He is now remembered by many with nostalgia as an ideal leader: determined, resolute, unyielding, principled. It says something about the moment we are in: as the “new Middle East” melts away, and even the bedrock peace with Egypt seems to shake, so Yitzhak Shamir is regarded rather wistfully as the kind of leader we need today.

I’ll leave it to others to elaborate on Shamir’s qualities. I would only add that the qualities he exhibited as a political leader—the tenacity, the resolve, the certitude in the way chosen—are precisely the qualities that enable political prisoners to endure exile and incarceration without losing hope. Yitzhak Shamir was exiled by the British empire to one of its most desolate outposts, Eritrea, in the hope of isolating and breaking him. He endured, escaped, made his way back home, and resumed his struggle.

Prison and exile leave an imprint often more lasting than study and reflection. They are a flame that forges character, and we see that in figures from Natan Sharansky to Nelson Mandela. Yitzhak Shamir came through that same flame. As far as I know, no one has written a book about political prisoners who became heads of state. In such a book, Yitzhak Shamir would deserve a prominent place, along with Menachem Begin.

Experience left him with a remarkable set of personal qualities. But as I always tell students, leadership isn’t a personal quality. It’s a relationship. For leadership to be successful, there must also be followers—persons who are in a symbiotic relationship with the leader. And so the interesting question isn’t only Yitzhak Shamir’s unique qualities, but why he so resonated with the Israeli public that he became the second-longest serving prime minister of Israel, after Ben-Gurion.

My summer interns are doing some work for me on Abba Eban, which gives rise to this reflection. Eban and Shamir were both born in 1915, only months apart. In one respect, they were similar: they were both outliers, Eban by his origins, Shamir by his politics. But otherwise, they were total opposites. During World War Two, Eban rose to the rank of major in the British Army; Shamir promoted attacks on British officers who were Eban’s colleagues. When the Lehi assassinated Swedish mediator Count Bernadotte, Eban was sent to represent Israel at his funeral. Shamir was always suspected of involvement in the assassination. Politically, of course, they were separated by the widest of gaps.

Eban was famously loquacious, a veritable talking machine. Someone once gave this tongue-in-cheek account of Eban’s oratorical style: “His speeches proceed with such an unbroken flow of admirable phrases that one awaits in a state of delighted incredulity the consummation of his eloquent sentences in which one sinuous clause takes up from its predecessors the elusive thread of the argument he is weaving, the shuttle of his words flying ever faster till he shakes out suddenly, like a conjurer’s silk handkerchief, the finish fabric of his speech.”

Shamir, by contrast, was extraordinarily taciturn, a man of few words. My friend Robert Satloff, who runs The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, shared this story with me, and I share it with you, Yair, as you may not have heard it.

The Institute rented out the St. Regis Hotel in the mid-80s to host an event with Shamir. 300 people filled the ballroom. My task was to prepare some questions for the Q/A session and plant them around the room. Shamir comes and delivers his usual remarks. 9 minutes total. Then we start Q/A and he runs through one question after another with olympic speed. (It doesn’t take long to say “no” — which he did better and with more frequency than anyone I ever met.) So, after a total of 28 minutes, Shamir exhausted every question (and every questioner) in the room. And we paid for a full hour!

Now if one had been situated in 1960 or 1970, and had to bet which of the two men would become prime minister of Israel, Eban would have been the obvious choice. If you’d been an American Jew, it wouldn’t even have been a question. The Encyclopedia Judaica first appeared in 1970. It devoted a column of print to Eban; Shamir didn’t even have an entry. Eban was an international icon, a hero of public diplomacy; Shamir worked in the shadows, spending years in secret operations.

Eventually both men served their county as foreign minister—but that’s as far as Eban got. The explanations are many, and there’s an element of accident and happenstance. But nothing in history is ever pure accident. There was something in Yitzhak Shamir that resonated in the Israeli people—something that made his brand of leadership appealing.

Future historians will debate what it was, but I’ll venture a preliminary guess: he personified an Israeli determination to stand firm against pressure. As a small country in a hostile neighborhood, Israel is always under pressure, from enemies and friends alike. There are many strategies to alleviate pressure—diplomacy, negotiation, concessions. Eban practiced them like a maestro. The problem is that these strategies often just invite more pressure. Shamir practiced a different strategy: simply make it self-evident that pressure will never work. This touched something deep in the Israeli psyche—and gave him a trusting following that transformed him into a national leader.

His policies can and will be debated, as will his legacy. But his strategy has proven itself. He didn’t reach it through profound study, just through the personally observed behavior of human kind. And this brings me to my final point.

There’s nothing particular in the career of Yitzhak Shamir that endears his memory to our project, Shalem College. He studied only sporadically; he learned what he knew from the school of life. Abba Eban collected 20 honorary doctorates from universities; Yitzhak Shamir collected two or three (and each time, the award excited protests). But his life poses the question we hope to answer. That’s because no young Israeli will lead such a life again. No young Israeli will be sent into exile as a political prisoner, driven underground to live under a false identity, be pursued by the armies of an empire. And it’s a good thing no young Israeli will live such a life, because we’re now a sovereign people.

In sovereign states where young people are protected and nurtured, which life experiences can begin to substitute for the tests imposed by the absence of sovereignty on an earlier generation of Jews? Since we’re not going to send our young people to a hole in Eritrea, or have them go to war with the crude tools of an underground militia, what other rigorous tests can we impose?

That is the mission of Shalem College. At some point, every stable and secure society must ask how it can mold leaders through some method other than adversity. The answer everywhere has been the rigors of a demanding education. We won’t see the likes of Yitzhak Shamir again, because the history that forged him is past. But we owe it to him, to ourselves, and to the Jewish people, to put our best young people to an exacting test, and so build them to be worthy successors of the founders. We’re grateful for the life of Yitzhak Shamir—and resolute in our determination to forge the successor generation with different tools, made possible by the privilege and power that comes with Jewish sovereignty.