Echoes of Obama-Netanyahu tussle in Reagan-Begin showdown of 1981

Then, as now, an Israeli prime minister came to Washington to lobby Congress against a president's foreign policy. Reagan wasn't happy about it, either.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2011.

Barack Obama isn't the only American president to chafe at an Israeli prime minister trying to go behind his back to the US Congress on foreign policy.

In September 1981, President Ronald Reagan welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin – who founded the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu now leads – to Washington, at a time that he was seeking approval of the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Begin was furious about it, saying it would irreparably harm Israel's security and launching a full-court lobbying effort in Washington to upend the sale. "We can only repeat our position that it will endanger very seriously the security of Israel," Begin said after touching down in the US.

Reagan writes in his autobiography of meeting Begin on that trip, and of the Israeli's objections to the AWACS deal.

Reagan told Begin that the US thought the deal wouldn't harm Israel's security, and might open a deal to a peace deal with Saudi Arabia, much like the one recently signed with Egypt. In his diary the evening of their state dinner, Reagan wrote: "While he (Begin) didn't give up his objection, he mellowed. By the time the meetings and state dinner had ended, he said this was the warmest reception he'd ever had from a president of the United States."

The warm glow did not last long, and Reagan received a lesson on Israeli influence on US policy and also accusations of anti-Semitism that he felt were personally penned by Mr. Begin.

Although I felt that our relationship had gotten off to a good start and that I had Begin's confidence that we would do whatever it took to ensure the safety of Israel, I learned that almost immediately after he left the White House, Begin went to Capitol Hill and began lobbying very hard against me, the administration, and the AWACS sale – after he had told me he wouldn't do that.

I didn't like having representatives of a foreign country – any foreign country – trying to interfere in what I regarded as our domestic political process and the setting of our foreign policy. I told the State Department to let Begin know I didn't like it and that he was jeopardizing the close relationship or our countries unless he backed off. Privately, I felt he'd broken his word and I was angry about it. Late the following month, we won the AWACS battle when the Senate narrowly defeated a measure that would have blocked the sale, and we achieved our goal of sending a signal to moderate Arabs that we could be evenhanded – even though Israel, in a message apparently dictated by Begin, denounced the administration for anti-Semitism and betrayal.

During the preceding weeks, I had experienced one of the toughest battles of my eight years in Washington. Israel had very strong friends in Congress. With the exception of two or three votes on our tax and spending cut legislation, I spent more time in one-on-one meetings and on the telephone attempting to win on this measure than on any other.

Begin's statement accusing the Reagan administration of anti-Semitism can be found here.

The bad taste this episode left probably contributed to Reagan's cutting off of supplies of cluster-bombs to Israel the next year, and to the decision in early 1992 by Reagan's vice president and successor, George H. W. Bush, to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel until the country agreed to freeze settlement expansion, something Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to that July, though settlement expansion continued.

Reading comments from the time, there are many echoes of the way the Obama administration's relationship with Israel is being poisoned by the debate over Iran. On Oct. 1, an angry Reagan told a press conference that "it is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy." When asked if that meant Israel, he responded. "Well, or anyone else."

The staunchly pro-Israel political commentator Norman Podheretz was quoted in The New York Times that October, in a piece on waning American Jewish support for Reagan, as saying: ''There are a lot of people who either believed in Reagan or were on the point of it, and they have been set back. It's bad for everyone that this issue has been framed as Begin versus Reagan. The President's attack on Israel for interfering was disturbing and even alarming to people. From the point of view of domestic politics, they've done themselves some damage.''

That said, relations between Reagan and Israel were generally warm - a few years later Israel ended up in the thick of the Reagan administration's illegal arms sales to Iran, which came to be known as the Iran-Contra scandal (since the proceeds were being used to secretly arm the Contra rebels in Nicaragua).

Now another Israeli prime minister is seeking to tie another US president's hands and Iran is not the recipient of arms sales funneled through Israel - but public enemy number one. Mr. Netanyahu has been lobbying Congress to impose tougher sanctions on Iran – something that would scuttle the Obama administration's attempt at a negotiated settlement with Iran. Whether Netanyahu will succeed where Begin failed remains to be seen.

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