In yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, Yehuda Avnner recalled some vivid observation of a testy conversation duringthe fall of 1970 between his boss, Prime Minister Golda Meir, and opposition leader Menachem Begin.
After making a heated speech on the floor of the Knesset condemning the government’s acceptance of the peace plan devised by RN’s Secretary of State William Rogers, Begin passed by the dining room table where Mrs. Meir was seated with her Ambassador to Washington Yitzhak Rabin.
“‘That was some fire and brimstone,’ hissed Golda derisively as the opposition leader walked by.”
Begin sat down uninvited. “So how does that square with Rogers cease-fire initiative, which is tantamount to appeasing the Russians and the Arabs?” he asked.
“It squares,” said Rabin, sinking his teeth into the argument, “because all along Nixon and Kissinger have known that in the War of Attrition the Soviets and the Egyptians were putting us both – America and Israel – to a test. They know the Soviets are feeding and manipulating the entire Egyptian war effort. That’s why I was the one to advocate deep penetration raids into the heart of Egyptian territory, to prove to the Americans that we have what it takes to stand up to the Soviets. Those raids not only changed the balance of power along the fighting front, they tipped the scales of the superpower confrontation in America’s favor. And thanks to that it ensures our American arms supplies. But Nixon, nevertheless, has to strike a balance.”
To make his point he extracted from his pocket a sheet of paper, and said, “Let me quote Nixon’s own words to me.” He read: ” ‘If it were just a question of Israel against the Egyptians and the Syrians, I’d say, “Let ’em have it! Hit ’em as hard as you can.” Every time I hear you penetrating deep into their territory and hitting them hard on the nose, it gives me great satisfaction. But it’s not just a problem of Egypt and Syria alone. The other Arab states are watching, too, so we have to play it in a manner that we won’t lose everything in the Middle East. We want to help you without harming ourselves by losing the Arabs.'”
Here, Rabin paused, and when he read on there was a touch of triumph in his voice: “‘Damn the oil! America can get it from other sources. We have to stand by decent nations in the Middle East. We will back you militarily, but the military escalation can’t go on endlessly. We must do something politically.’ And that,” concluded Rabin, “is the meaning of the Rogers initiative.”
To which Golda, brimming with gratification at her ambassador’s first-hand analysis, said, “I, personally, don’t think any American president has ever uttered such a pro-Israel statement before. Add to that, in return for our accepting the Rogers cease-fire package Nixon has promised me we will not be expected to withdraw a single soldier from the cease-fire lines except in the context of a contractual peace agreement which we would regard satisfactory to our security needs. Moreover, had we not accepted the Rogers initiative we would not be getting any more American arms. Surely you understand that!”
Yehuda Avner, who writes frequent pieces of autobiography and opinion, served on the personal staffs of five Israeli Prime Ministers. All the while he pursued a diplomatic career that involved stints in the Israeli consulate in New York, the embassy in Washington, and as Ambassador to Ireland, Australia, and the Court of St. James’.
Born in England, Ambassador Avner immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1947; he fought in the 1948 siege of Jerusalem. He recently endowed the Yehuda Avner Chair on Religion and Politics at the Bar-Ilan University. He serves as a diplomatic political consultant to the Israeli government.