Still Wrong on the Middle East

Daniel Pipes reports that a researcher from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, working on documents at the Carter Center, came across a memo from William Quandt, Middle East specialist on the National Security Council, to his boss, Zbigniew Brzezinski, written on the occasion of Menachem Begin’s 1977 electoral victory over Israel’s Labor Party. As Pipes notes, it is striking how little things have changed in our national security establishment. Quandt’s memo begins:

Much of our strategy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict has been predicated on the assumption that a strong and moderate Israeli government would at some point be able to make difficult decisions on territory and on the Palestinians. Now we face the prospect of a very weak coalition, a prolonged period of uncertainty, and an Israeli leadership which may be significantly more assertive in its policies concerning the West Bank, Palestinians, settlements, and nuclear weapons.
The Arabs will no doubt read the Israeli election results as signifying an end to the chance of getting to Geneva this year, and possibly the end of any hope for a political settlement, and we may see them begin to take out insurance by patching up quarrels with the Soviets, digging in their heels on peace terms , and acting more belligerently on oil prices.

Substitute “Netanyahu” for “Begin” and the memo could have been written during the Obama administration. As Pipes relates, the Carter administration’s expectations were frustrated pretty much across the board:

In fact, Begin’s government made the difficult decisions Labor had not taken, his coalition endured, the Egyptians became more forthcoming, their rift from the Soviets deepened, and oil prices were not affected (until the fall of the shah shot them up).

Quandt’s memo makes clear how unabashedly the U.S. foreign policy establishment sided with Labor over Likud. Quandt expressed the hope that “perhaps the next election in 1978 or 1979 will produce different results.” But it didn’t: Begin and his successors dominated Israeli politics for 27 of the next 33 years.
In one respect, the Carter administration (or William Quandt, anyway) was smarter than Obama’s. Quandt wrote:

We should do nothing in public to indicate disappointment with the Likud victory. Instead, we should continue to talk of the importance of Geneva, the requirements of a comprehensive peace, and the need for flexibility. If Begin becomes Prime Minister, he should be treated with respect and we should invite him to Washington.
A new Israeli election may be inevitable in the near future. By our actions, we do not want to increase support for Begin, which might occur if we reassess our policy too quickly.

This is advice Barack Obama could have used; his gratuitous rudeness to Prime Minister Netanyahu undoubtedly enhanced Netanyahu’s popularity in Israel.
That is a minor tactical matter, however. Quandt’s memo leaves no doubt where he and the Carter administration stood vis-a-vis Israel and its Arab enemies:

At the same time, Israeli voters should know that a hard-line government will not find it easy to manage the US-Israel relationship. Intransigence must be seen to carry a price tag, but we should not be seen as the bully. Begin should be allowed to make his own mistakes. If he takes positions in his talks with us that preclude the continuation of our peace initiative, we should not hesitate to explain what has happened. …
American public support for a Likud-led government is likely to be less than it has been for the Labor governments of the past. [Ed.: This was wishful thinking by an American liberal.] This may give us some room for maneuver. It may even provide a setting in which we can take some of the hard decisions on arms for Egypt and contacts with the Palestinians. …
Assuming that progress toward a settlement will be delayed, at least until late this year, we need to consider a damage limiting strategy for keeping Sadat, Asad, Fahd and Hussein from giving up on us. Since we will probably not be producing Israeli concessions in negotiations, we will have to give some thought to what else we can offer. [Ed.: Ponder that sentence for a moment.] For Egypt and Saudi Arabia the answer may be, unfortunately, arms. …
I would incline toward restraint in our arms policy toward Israel, but we should not be punitive or abrupt. As new decisions arise–co-production, the number of F-16s , and so forth–we can relate our actions to Israeli flexibility, or lack thereof, on peace settlement issues.

In this arena, at least, the Obama administration has brought us not “change,” but rather a depressing continuity with the policies of Jimmy Carter.

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