Repudiated presidents and Israel

The end of the Trump Administration has prompted much stock-taking. Many have argued that Donald Trump was good for Israel. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, brokering the Abraham Accords, applying “maximum pressure” on Iran—it’s no wonder that most Israelis would have preferred a second term for Trump.

Yet by the usual measure of presidential success, he was a dud. He joins the short list of only five American presidents who failed to win reelection over the past century. And he has the unique ignominy of having been impeached twice. Many pundits, partisan and otherwise, are predicting that he’ll go down in history as “the worst president ever.”

In truth, nothing is as unpredictable as history. But at the moment, Trump looks like yet another variation on a familiar type: the repudiated president who’s done well by Israel. Scanning the past half-century, the previous two presidents who did the most to secure Israel and bring it peace also were cast aside by the American public. The comparison is revealing, although its lessons are elusive.

“Nixon did not break a single promise…”

The first case is Richard Nixon. From the outset, Israeli leaders and officials liked what they saw in Nixon—none more so than Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. In a 1972 interview, he said of Nixon that “never in America’s history had any president gone so far in his pro-Israeli declarations or in expressing America’s commitment to Israel’s security.” Coming in an election year, that caused a firestorm, and led to a Washington Post editorial decrying Rabin as an “undiplomatic diplomat.”

At the time, Rabin insisted he had no intention of playing favorites. But in his memoirs, he described Nixon as “the more desirable candidate from Israel’s point of view” even as compared to Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and expressed disappointment that “America’s Jews did not share my opinion.” He worried that this dearth of Jewish supporters might turn Nixon against Israel. To his relief, he found that Nixon’s views on Israel “were founded on more than political expediency. My fears proved to be groundless.”

The proof arrived in October 1973, when Israel came under a combined, surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. It was Nixon who, in the words of some Israelis, “saved Israel,” first by sending Israel massive arms shipments by air and sea, and then by facing down the Soviet backers of Egypt, to the point of threatening nuclear war. Nor did Nixon flinch when Arab oil states retaliated with a punishing oil boycott.

Israelis felt vindicated for trusting a man many Americans reviled as “Tricky Dick.” “I knew that President Nixon had promised to help us,” wrote Israel’s then-prime minister, Golda Meir, in her memoirs,

and I knew from my past experience with him that he would not let us down. Let me, at this point, repeat something that I have said often before (usually to the extreme annoyance of many of my American friends). However history judges Richard Nixon—and it is probable that the verdict will be very harsh—it must also be put on the record forever that he did not break a single one of the promises he made to us.

When Nixon ultimately resigned in disgrace over Watergate, it pained Meir:

It should not come as a surprise that his resignation—under circumstances unprecedented in American history—caused me deep regret. I was familiar with his virtues and his faults, both of which he possessed in abundance. But above all I had great respect for his broad vision and understanding of global politics…. [H]is doctrine that the United States should help those nations willing to help themselves found very concrete expression in regard to Israel…. Nixon helped to provide Israel with more arms than any other American president. For this, and for his strict avoidance of imposing an unwanted political solution on Israel, he is deserving of this country’s profound gratitude.

In rankings by presidential historians, Nixon has risen a bit over the years, but he still figures in the bottom third of all presidents. In contrast, he would be at or near the top of the list of “best friends” of Israel in the White House.

“Carter has done more and gone farther….”

The second case is Jimmy Carter. Today, it’s usual to view Carter as hostile to Israel, based on the harsh criticism he leveled at Israeli policy after leaving the White House. His 2006 New York Times bestseller, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, made him anathema to supporters of Israel.

But that wasn’t the perception of Carter when he was president, and Carter’s success in brokering Israel’s peace with Egypt at Camp David today looms large, in comparison with the many failures of subsequent presidents. Without Carter’s unique set of skills, Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 might have led nowhere.

In late 1979, Moshe Dayan, who had been at Camp David, sang Carter’s praises. “Carter has done more and gone farther than any former president in order to bring peace between us and the Arabs,” he announced. As part of that peace deal, “we have achieved first-class agreements, better than Israel ever had with the United States.”

The later praise by Israeli future-president Ezer Weizman, who also witnessed Carter at Camp David, carried even more weight, since he offered it long after Carter’s political demise: “From an Israeli viewpoint,” he wrote,

Jimmy Carter had been a good president. He was the prime mover in the conclusion of the Camp David agreements and in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that resulted. He granted Israel lavish economic and military aid.

But as in the case of Nixon, here, too, American Jews didn’t appreciate what Carter had done:

There was no reason why American Jews should not have supported [Carter in 1980], as they had supported other Democratic candidates like Humphrey, Johnson, and Kennedy—and Carter himself in 1976. But that was not how it worked out. Only 54 percent of Jewish voters opted for Carter [over Republican Ronald Reagan]—a relatively low proportion of Jewish backing for a Democratic candidate.

Of course, it wasn’t only the Jews. No incumbent president was repudiated by the electorate as decisively as Carter in 1980. Reagan’s electoral college victory, 489 to 49, represented the highest number of electoral votes ever won by a non-incumbent.

Carter’s presidency also ended in humiliation. Iran freed the U.S. diplomatic hostages it had held for 444 days only as Carter left the White House on his last day in office. He is regularly ranked by presidential historians in the bottom half of the class.

But the Egyptian-Israeli peace, his greatest achievement, is still considered the gold standard of peacemaking in the Middle East. Another president, Bill Clinton, ached to replicate that miracle in his own Camp David talks with Israel and the Palestinians in 2000. When he fell short, he angrily told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”

No one today would call Carter a “great friend of Israel” (although Menachem Begin did just that in 1977). But just as Nixon rescued Israel in its most desperate war, Carter secured for Israel its most precious peace.

“The best friend Israel has ever had…”

Donald Trump now joins the short list of repudiated presidents who did well by Israel.

It will take some time to sort out just how much good he did. As it now looks, Trump’s actions regarding Israel don’t rise to the level of Nixon’s or Carter’s, for sheer impact. That’s because circumstances didn’t present him with an opportunity to make a comparable kind of difference. “We have the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a year ago. But Trump’s “best friendship” was never stress-tested, so we’ll never know.

That’s the role of chance in history. One man, Egypt’s Sadat, created opportunities for both Nixon and Carter. On Nixon’s watch, he launched a war that shook Israel’s foundations. On Carter’s watch, he shook Israel again with a surprise visit to Jerusalem. If Sadat hadn’t acted, there would have been no openings for Nixon and Carter to exploit.

Nothing of similar magnitude happened on Trump’s watch, and his initiatives toward Israel were mostly cost-free acts of recognition. His most substantive achievement, the Abraham Accords, required real diplomatic ingenuity, but it’s too early to judge their long-term significance for Israel, or gauge their resilience in crisis conditions. All that’s certain is that as Trump leaves Washington, he has the potential to be remembered as a president who made a historic difference to Israel. But that’s a call only future historians will be positioned to make.

Not the president you’d like to have

So is there some explanatory connection between leaving the White House under a cloud, and having done exceptional good for Israel? Or is it just coincidence?

If there’s a connection, it’s not obvious, at least to me. But even if there isn’t one, there may still be a few lessons here, for both Israelis and American Jews.

In each election cycle, there is much brouhaha over which candidate is the greater “friend of Israel.” But the evidence is that doing right by Israel counts for only so much in American politics. As we’ve seen, a gallant president can rescue Israel from peril or bring its adversaries to the peace table, but neither will compensate for mistakes he makes arising from vanity, arrogance, or miscalculation.

But even a floundering president must protect U.S. strategic interests. And a wounded one is more prone to obsess over posterity’s judgment. It’s in these two realms that helping Israel adds value to a president, and it’s here that Israel and its supporters should focus their appeals. The political payoff for supporting Israel may be negligible, but the other rationales are persuasive, and deserve greater emphasis.

For Israel, it’s vital to remain non-partisan and non-judgmental when it comes to presidents. Not only does Israel have no decisive influence over who will be president. Israel doesn’t fully control the timing of crises that might require presidential intervention.

When that happens, it shouldn’t matter to Israel what controversies or scandals embroil the president. It shouldn’t matter if he’s a self-righteous prig (like Carter) or a “grab ’em by the pussy” bully (like Trump) or even a country-club antisemite (like Nixon). To paraphrase a quotable American, you go to war with the president you have, not the president you’d like to have.

These failings do matter to American Jews: unlike Israelis, they have the right to take sides, pass judgment, and cast votes. But if they care about the well-being of Israel, they shouldn’t busily delegitimate supporters of Israel on the other side of the partisan aisle. It’s self-defeating, because you don’t know whether your hero or your antihero will be in the Oval Office precisely at the moment of crisis for Israel. If it’s not your hero, Israel will have to rely not on you, but on your opponents.

A certain dispassion may be especially hard to maintain when you view the president as insufferable, as many American Jews viewed Nixon, Carter, and Trump. That’s the time to take a deep breath, remember past precedents, and repeat: “The work of the righteous is done by others.”

Cross-posted at Times of Israel, here.

Behind Israel’s most expensive house

News outlets have reported that Sheldon Adelson, the American casino magnate and mega-donor to politicians, has closed a deal to purchase the seaside residence in the Israeli city of Herzliya that for decades has been the home of successive U.S. ambassadors. Evidently, in the wake of its move of the American embassy itself from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Washington has been keen to bolster its presence further in Israel’s capital; disposing of the residence is one means to that end. Adelson’s reported price, the largest sum ever paid for a home in Israel: $87 million.

As it happens, the same coastal property once drew another famous, upward-aspiring American owner—a fact I discovered by accident two years ago.

At the time, I was dipping into Israel’s state archives…

• For the full article go here to Mosaic, or

Image: An aerial view of seaside homes on Galei T’khelet Street, Herzliya, 1991. The ambassador’s residence is the large white-fenced property in the center. Moshe Milner, Israel Government Press Office.

A defense treaty between the US and Israel? Just say no

This is a response to an essay by Charles Freilich on U.S.-Israeli relations, published in Mosaic Magazine.

Charles Freilich has produced an astute and savvy analysis of the forces driving the U.S.-Israel relationship. It’s no surprise: all who know him regard him as one of the most thoughtful (and critical) students of Israeli decision-making, and his writing is a model of care and restraint.

But the reader encountering Freilich for the first time is bound to be confused, because his major operative conclusion seems at odds with his analysis. After explaining at length how it would best serve Israel to be less dependent on the United States, he then proposes that it strive to conclude a formal defense treaty with that same United States. Having noted that the stature of the United States in the Middle East “is at its nadir,” he urges Israel to “cement” its understandings with the waning superpower. What gives?

The explicit rationale offered by Freilich is that such a treaty would be valuable to Israel in deterring Iran. Indeed, he writes, it “might prove to be the only partially effective response to a nuclear Iran.” If that were the case, such a treaty would be an existential necessity. But I find it improbable that Freilich really believes this, because in many other op-eds and interviews he’s asserted the opposite: that Israel is perfectly capable of independently deterring Iran, were that country to cross the nuclear threshold. “Israel’s own deterrence should suffice,” he has written. If so, a defense treaty with the United States would add no value to Israeli deterrence of Iran, and so would be totally unnecessary.

Then there are threats that fall short of the nuclear. But Israel, as Freilich knows, is capable of dealing with these threats on its own, and when its estimate of such threats differs from Washington’s, it presently has the leeway to chart its own course of action. Even Freilich is reluctant to sacrifice this freedom, however infrequently Israel exercises it. That’s why he writes that “a treaty could be crafted that would explicitly not apply to cases of low- to medium-level threats and hostilities.”

So if a treaty isn’t necessary to deter high-level threats, and wouldn’t apply to medium- and low-level threats, just what would it add? I could profess to be puzzled, but I’m not. That’s because I’m an avid reader of everything Freilich writes, so I hope he won’t object if I put his Mosaic essay in a broader context.

Elsewhere Freilich has argued consistently that Israel is headed for perdition if it doesn’t separate from the Palestinians. To achieve that separation, he has written, “Israel will have to agree to withdraw from virtually all of the territory [of the West Bank], other than limited land swaps, to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and to divide Jerusalem.” Since there is no Palestinian partner to an agreement, Israel should work to “keep the two-state solution alive” by the transfer of additional territory to the Palestinians “and above all [by] a halt to settlements outside the ‘blocs’ and [by] provision of incentives to settlers to begin ‘coming home,’ even without a final settlement.” Eventually, Israel will have to be prepared “to move the 100,000 settlers who live outside the blocs.” Unless Israel does so, it will be headed down a one-way street to a binational state—if it hasn’t turned that corner already.

Why is this relevant to Freilich’s essay on U.S.-Israeli relations? Because it is his view that no agreement with the Palestinians will ever be reached without the United States. “Peace will be achieved, if at all, only with American assistance.” And the only way for the United States to achieve results is “to confront both sides and ‘crack heads.’” Freilich doesn’t say this in his Mosaic essay, but he’s said it elsewhere, and it explains his otherwise most puzzling proposal that Israel should seek a formal treaty with the United States.

The explanation is made explicit in this crucial passage:

A defense treaty might constitute the kind of security assurance and strategic “carrot” that could increase the willingness of a highly skeptical Israeli electorate to accept the risks, and dramatic concessions, necessary for peace with the Palestinians.

This sentence appears in an earlier iteration of Freilich’s Mosaic essay. It was titled “How Long Could Israel Survive Without America?” and was published last July in Newsweek. The sentence reveals that the real significance of the defense treaty isn’t its contribution to Israel’s security. Rather, the treaty fits into a future public-relations strategy for wooing the Israeli center into concessions, so that Israelis won’t entirely recoil when the Americans start “cracking heads.” It’s the carrot to accompany the stick, something a future Israeli prime minister can dangle as compensation when time is ripe for the next big push for “peace.”

This linkage of the defense treaty to the Palestinian issue is, however, completely missing from the Mosaic essay, and that has the effect of making Freilich’s entire proposal nonsensical. For if you think that now is the time for Israel to assert its independence vis-à-vis the United States, and if you argue, as Freilich does, that Israel should even give up U.S. military assistance, why would you argue for a defense treaty, which would only shackle Israel even more tightly to the United States? The seeming contradiction is resolved as soon as the missing rationale is restored. The treaty has nothing to do with Israel’s real security needs. It’s the psychological part of the compensation package a future Israeli government will need, when it prepares to divide Jerusalem and turn 100,000 settlers out of their homes so that they can “come home.”

Let’s give Israel’s electorate more credit: they know that a defense treaty wouldn’t add substantially to Israeli security. And Freilich anticipates this by making another argument: a treaty may not add to Israel’s security, but its absence could subtract from it. Why?

Because, he answers, U.S.-Israel relations may have peaked, and, absent a treaty, U.S. support for Israel might slip. Freilich emphasizes the erosion of support for Israel on the left end of the American political spectrum, before making this argument: “A defense treaty would symbolize and cement the ‘special relationship’ at a time when signs indicate it may not continue to be as deep as it is now.” By constituting “a binding commitment to Israel’s security,” a treaty would “ensure the ongoing availability of weapons, remove any residual limitations on the supply of arms and technologies, and assure Israel’s long-term qualitative military edge”—even if the relationship goes from “deep” to shallow.

Freilich says a treaty would “cement” the relationship; another common expression is “lock in.” Robert Danin, a former U.S. diplomat and negotiator, used just that phrase in a 2016 Foreign Affairs article: Israel and the United States could

drift apart as each undergoes demographic, political, and social changes. This may be happening already. . . . There is no guarantee that the strong pro-Israel consensus that has long been a bipartisan feature of U.S. politics will endure forever. Now is therefore the time for Israel to lock in the existing benefits of its relationship with Washington.

So we are supposed to believe that even if support for Israel in America were to erode away, the United States would continue to “pay out,” as if a defense treaty were a Treasury bill.

This is a charmingly naïve approach to American foreign policy. In the vast spectrum of promises of all kinds issued by the United States, the T-bill is the most reliable; the foreign treaty is the least. You can “lock in” an interest rate for 30 years and sleep soundly. Sign a treaty with the United States? Don’t close your eyes for a moment.

It’s not that the United States is less reliable than other nations. It’s that interests aren’t interest rates, and when they shift (or the perception of them shifts), no treaty in the world can hold up under the stress. If the assessment in Jerusalem is that the United States is going to drift away from Israel, the last thing Israelis should want is a defense treaty. Israel would end up imploring some future administration to keep commitments it would rather forget, and for which there’s dwindling public support.

Given Freilich’s own doubts about the stability of American politics and policy, it’s remarkable he continues to propose this. He has called Donald Trump “probably the most ill-suited president ever elected in American history, glaringly incompetent, a danger to the American people and to the world.” The American president, he has written, “is motivated by fleeting political and personal gain, rather than deep strategic thought.”

If one believes this, why would one continue to advocate a defense treaty with a polity whose electorate has shown itself capable of putting such a “dangerous” man at the helm? Perhaps the rules of American politics have changed? Does Israel want to be handcuffed to a polarized and weakened power? Don’t misunderstand me: it’s not I who’ve passed this judgment on the Trump administration. But if I had, I wouldn’t be pressing for a defense treaty with a state whose foreign policy has just fallen unexpectedly into “dangerous” hands and might easily do so again.

Freilich has argued that it would be a betrayal of Zionism were the Jews to become a minority in their own state. I think he’s right. But I also think it would be a betrayal of Zionism if the only sovereign Jewish state were to become a satrapy. I agree fully with Freilich: Israel’s independence has eroded, and it must work systematically to restore its freedom of maneuver. But a U.S.-Israel defense treaty would be precisely the wrong way to go about it.

• See the original response at Mosaic Magazine, right here.