The 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.
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).