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February 10, 2015 8:46 am

Netanyahu’s Congressional Speech Follows in Rabin’s Footsteps

avatar by Rafael Medoff / JNS.org

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Taglit-Birthright Israel 15th anniversary event on Wednesday in Jerusalem. Photo: Orly Eyal-Levy.

JNS.orgThe supposedly unprecedented step taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his plan to speak directly before Congress about the Iranian nuclear threat on March 3, rather than working exclusively with the White House on the issue, actually has an interesting precedent—established in 1975 by none other than Yitzhak Rabin and America’s Democratic Party.

That spring, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger undertook a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at reaching a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The negotiations quickly ran into trouble, when Egypt refused to offer anything more than a brief a period of “non-belligerency” in exchange for an Israeli retreat from strategic mountain passes and oil fields in the Sinai desert.

In an attempt to force Israel’s hand, Kissinger arranged for President Gerald Ford to send Rabin a message expressing “profound disappointment” that Israel had not agreed to Egypt’s terms, and threatening a “reassessment” of U.S.-Israel relations unless Jerusalem gave in.

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Rabin confronted Kissinger directly and accused him of orchestrating the message from Ford in order to pressure Israel. Kissinger responded by storming out of the meeting, claiming that “never, never had he been spoken to in a diplomatic meeting in such insulting terms,” according to Matti Golan, chief diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The claim to have been insulted—which has featured prominently in recent Obama administration criticism of Netanyahu—became one of the themes in Kissinger’s arsenal as the crisis gathered steam, according to Prof. Arlene Lazarowitz of California State University-Long Beach, who recently examined Ford’s papers on this topic and wrote about the subject in the scholarly journal American Jewish History. When Rabin and his cabinet declined to give in to Ford’s threat, Kissinger told the president, “To have received a letter from you and not to change one iota is an indignity to the United States.”

“Reassessment,” Rabin later wrote in his memoirs, “was an innocent-sounding term that heralded one of the worst periods in American-Israeli relations.” U.S. arms transfers to Israel were halted, negotiations with Israel over future weapons purchases were suspended, and visits to the U.S. by Israeli diplomats were canceled.

Rabin had recently spent five years in Washington as Israel’s ambassador. He knew the American political system well enough to understand that those who found themselves at odds with the White House sometimes turned to Congress—especially if the president’s opponents enjoyed a majority there.

In 1975, the Democrats held 61 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Rabin took his case to them. In just three weeks, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) persuaded 76 senators to sign a letter urging Ford to “stand firmly with Israel” and to be “responsive to Israel’s urgent military and economic needs.” Taking direct aim at the administration’s “reassessment,” the senators emphasized that “withholding military equipment from Israel would be dangerous, discouraging accommodation by Israel’s neighbors and encouraging a resort to force.” The letter also asserted that the U.S. should not seek any Israeli withdrawals without “meaningful steps toward peace by its Arab neighbors.”

Among the 76 signatories to the letter, 51 were Democrats and 25 were Republicans. It sent a strong message to the White House about the breadth of support for Israel on Capitol Hill. Naturally, Ford and Kissinger were furious. The president complained directly to Rabin that the letter was “very bad.” Ford assured Egypt’s leaders that “half of [the senators who signed] didn’t read it and a quarter didn’t understand the letter.”

The senators’ letters would have strengthened Rabin’s position in the negotiations, had he chosen to stand his ground. But Rabin, who had been prime minister for barely nine months, was not well prepared for the crisis. He had no experience dealing with an angry president or troubles in U.S.-Israel relations. Most of all, he was no match for Kissinger.

Through a series of orchestrated leaks and carefully planted news stories, the secretary of state manufactured an atmosphere of tension which left Rabin feeling bewildered and isolated. Rumblings from Rabin’s arch-rivals, Foreign Minister Yigal Allon and Defense Minister Shimon Peres, coupled with warnings from his finance minister about the need for U.S. economic aid, increased the pressure on the prime minister. By mid-summer, Rabin “simply caved in,” as Matti Golan of Haaretz put it. Israel accepted the Egyptian demands that it previously resisted.

There are similarities between Netanyahu’s situation today and what Rabin faced in 1975, most notably the depth of Congressional support for Israel. But there are also differences, the most important of which has to do with the two men themselves. Rabin, who was then a rookie in the prime minister’s office, was not well-schooled in the interplay between diplomacy, politics, and the news media. Netanyahu, now serving his third term as Israel’s leader, was raised in America and has a keen understanding of how American political culture and the media help shape U.S. foreign policy. The current crisis is not likely to end the way Rabin’s did.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of 15 books about Jewish history, including the “Historical Dictionary of Zionism” (coauthored with Chaim I. Waxman).

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  • RobiMac

    Come on over, PM Netanyahu! It is so wonderful to finally see someone kick Obama in the teeth. And you, Bibi, are the ONLY one in the whole wide world who has the guts to do it.

    Welcome to America. You have my support. Yeshua be with you.
    Much love from someone who has been adopted into the Jewish family.

  • GREAT ARTICLE!

  • Yitzhak Rabin’s term in office as PM of Israel underscores
    a point I have been making for years: That with the nota-
    ble exceptions of generals Grant, Eisenhower, DeGaulle
    and Mannerheim, former generals make mediocre heads of
    state. In the case of Israel, military service on the
    high level has been a fast track to high office or, at
    worse, a seat in the Knesset. It might happen again.

  • Robert Davis

    Great article!Of course rabin was not a polititian or rather he was a lousy one! Netanyahou should be much better than stupid,spineless rabin and should know better that, in such a situation ONE MUST STAND FIRMLY HIS POSITION AND NEVER GIVE IN WHATEVER WEAPON THE ENEMY CAN COME UP WITH. Hopefully the PM will show who he is : a spineless idiot or a real PM.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Thank you, Dr. Medoff, for such an enlightening explication. It is critical that accredited Jewish historians speak out to the Jewish community intelligently, academically, and objectively on this very important sensitive issue.

  • An Israeli Prime Minister cannot blindly follow American advice or injunctions. Israel might have lost the 1967 Six-Day War if Moshe Dayan had heeded President Johnson’s warning against firing the first shot. He would not have destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground before troop movements started! American understanding of the Israeli situation has never been adequate, and this inept president does not have a clue. In addition, he is no friend of Israel, all his lying assertions to the contrary notwithstanding.
    So, an Israeli Prime Minister accepting an invitation from the U.S. Congress is smart, IMO.
    The Congress often is more representative of the will of the American people, certainly than this intolerably moronic president. Godspeed, Mr. Netanyahu and welcome to America.

  • David Levy

    Plus the threat from Iran is far more dangerous, not only to Israel but to the entire West, in the face of which Obama is a lame duck and Kerry is no Kissinger.

  • Suzette

    TRUE JEWISH LOVING AMERICANS ARE THANKING GOD FOR PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU AND HIS WISDOM AND HIS COURAGE TO SPEAK TO THE US CONGRESS! MAY HE TURN THE TIDE OF HISTORY WITH HIS STARK AND FRANK WARNING TO AMERICA AND TO ISRAEL!

    OBAMA IS A SHAME TO OUR COUNTRY, AND WE HANG OUR HEADS AT JUST THE THOUGHT OF HIS SLY AND CUNNING WAYS! WE ENCOURAGE OUR SELVES IN KNOWING THAT GOD WILL HAVE THE FINAL WORD IN THIS AND ALL OTHER SITUATIONS!

    TRUE CHRISTIANS HERE IN THE UNITED STATES SEE OBAMA AS AN ENEMY NOT ONLY TO ISRAEL BUT ALSO TO OUR COUNTRY AS WELL! HE HAS NO PLAN EXCEPT TO DESTROY BOTH OF OUR COUNTIRES! HE IS A WOLF IN SHEEP CLOTHING! THE VERY REAL CONCERN IS THAT SO MANY AMERICANS SEEM TO BE BLINDED TO OBAMA’S WICKED WAYS!

    MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON ALL OF US THAT LOVE HIS KINGDOM!

  • Michael Garfinkel

    Let’s state the obvious, once again.

    Obama and his administration have acceded to Iran’s desire for regional hegemony – and the Bomb.

    Their position is immutable.

    Nothing short of Israeli military action against Iran will alter the consequences of this situation.

  • SHmuel HaLevi

    Excellent article in every respect. The ending paragraph is perfectly fitting.

  • Gregg Solomon

    Interesting. What is past is prologue. I hope Netanyahu doesn’t back down.

  • Jonathan

    So let me make certain I understand the article.

    Kissinger and Ford “bully” Rabin into an agreement with the Egyptians that he didn’t want. 76 Senators sign onto a letter supporting the Israeli position. Nevertheless, Rabin caves and agrees to the Egyptian terms for a ceasefire.

    Two years later Anwar Sadat flies to Israeli and begins the progress to the peace treaty that has been the bedrock of Israeli defense policy ever since. Seems like all of Ford, Kissinger and Rabin were correct.

    What did I miss?

  • EthanP

    We must remember that the 1975 Congressional Democrats were a much more moderate, far less “left” group than they are now. And a basic tenant of the far left, which now includes at least 1/2 of the Democratic Caucus’, is anti-Israel.

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