Washington’s Mirror

In late May 1967, Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban traveled to Washington to evaluate the American position regarding a possible Israeli offensive. Shortly afterwards, in a top secret trip concealed from most of Israel’s ministers, Meir Amit, Head of the Mossad, went to Washington, presumably to enquire about the same issue.

Had the results of that war not been perceived as miraculous, instead of a preventable historical disaster, if, for instance, the Egyptian provocation in the Sinai had been disentangled diplomatically— then the opponents of the war in general, and Abba Eban in particular, might have enhanced our understanding of the mechanism underlying Israel-US relations.

But Eban was glad to quickly ally himself with the ‘Victory Government’, cover up the recent past and swallow his pride over his portrayal in the history books. He also wrote history himself, and on one major issue (his sarcastic confrontation with Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin’s manipulative doomsday prophecies), spared the English reader the information he conveyed only to us Israelis. Later on, for just one moment, in June 1983, when the Israeli entanglement in the Lebanese quagmire was undeniable and it became clear that Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon had obtained a ‘Green Light’ for the attack from Washington, Eban expressed his “wonder at our American friends.”

For years, Israeli doves clung to American peace declarations as a basic component in their world view. Some of the dovish camp’s ‘prohibitions’ relied on an imaginary American ‘No’. For instance, their objection to IDF violence has always been based on the damage it would bring to U.S.-Israel relations. Objection to the settlement policy was also based on the American declaration that “the settlements are an obstacle to peace”, which rendered the settlements an impediment to US-Israeli relations. In short, US ambivalence in the region has bluntly outlined our political map.

Eban and Amit’s Washington trips acquired their meanings in subsequent years, with the decline of Eban, or Pinhas Sapir, or Mapam or “Peace Now”, or Meretz. The security establishment, on the other hand, became a part of the state’s civilian political leadership only after 1967.

No protagonist is more central to this issue than Yitzhak Rabin, his change of heart included. No event is more significant in Israel’s political “zigzags” than the peace treaty with Egypt – from Ford’s 1975 “re-assessment” to the ceremony on the White House lawn. At home, “Peace Now” was at its strongest.

Yet, in order to understand the doves’ weakness one needs to return to Amit’s pre-war trip to Washington. Amit did not travel just to find out what the Americans were thinking. He went to the U.S. in order to convince them: Israel can win the war, for the Americans as well. In short, the a-symmetry between doves and hawks in Israel was perpetuated in the Israel-U.S. relations. The former had hope for the neighborhood policeman to show up and set things straight in the region. The latter, however, have always had something to offer: improved joint positions. The doves wanted to know what Washington was thinking; the hawks wanted to prove to Washington what it should think, for America’s own good.

This is how the dovish camp in Israel was gradually phased out, among other reasons because the U.S. Middle East policy became unequivocal, and no longer sat well with the doves’ aspirations. Meanwhile, Israel’s rightwing understood what its defense establishment had long before realized: That the U.S. says many things, and Israel must act as the U.S. expects of it to act, regardless of what Washington says openly. No one understood this better than Yitzhak Rabin.

This is the context in which the small remaining dovish opposition disappeared entirely during the presidency of George W. Bush, when Washington no longer presented even a façade of resistance to Israeli policies. The “settlements” as an obstacle to peace disappeared from the mantra, replaced by “the illegal outposts”. Israeli doves imitated this devaluation and also stopped talking about “the settlements” as a whole, differentiating instead between the “the settlements west of the Separation Wall” (which they support), or East of it.

It is in this context that Ariel Sharon, at the height of the American entanglement in Iraq, swiftly divided the Likkud party and withdrew unilaterally from Gaza. Here, again, was the “Rabin doctrine” in play, believing that Israel must recognize when the U.S. is about to cut its losses, and make the first move.

This is how the Americans acted in Lebanon after 1983, and this is apparently their way now in the whole of the Middle East. Alas, even if Barack Obama’s new dawn does bring a promise of different days to the region, it has remained without its Israeli dovish allies. Tzipi Livni, between two right wing figures such as Shaul Mofaz and Tzahi Hanegbi. That is all there is.

Yitzhak Laor is an Israeli novelist who lives in Tel Aviv.