Sometime at the very start of 1982 I attended a function at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, which would have been entirely forgettable except that rarely was I since as nauseated as then. I came away revolted by the spectacle of my Israeli colleagues eagerly milling around ambassador Sam Lewis, seeking his attention and trying to outdo each other in heaping mockery and contempt on their own prime minister. Brutal jokes at Menachem Begin’s expense came fast and furious. Lewis visibly appreciated them and laughed condescendingly.
It was one of the sorriest displays of Israeli self-debasement I had until then witnessed.
But in time I came to regard it as typical of the fawning eagerness to curry favor with foreign bigwigs. Kowtowing to the exceedingly well-connected and widely-courted Lewis wasn’t merely ingratiating. It also served the local Left’s visceral anti-Begin politics. Undisguised American displeasure with him seemed a serendipitous source of support.
It was after Begin had serially disobeyed Washington. First he dared destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Though America should have thanked Israel for the service, secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger (to my shame a distant relative of my father’s) was livid. Hence previously contracted delivery of fighters was “suspended.” Later the IAF bombed the PLO’s Beirut headquarters and more aircraft deliveries were put on hold. Then the bill extending Israeli law to the Golan Heights was enacted. The US responded by reassessing its strategic cooperation agreement.
Begin decided not to take his lumps. He summoned Lewis and subjected him to the most undiplomatic dressing-down any US diplomat probably ever received from an ally. Begin bristled at the very notion of American diktats. “Are we a vassal state?” he demanded, and went on to stress that Israel is neither a banana republic nor a bunch of “14-year-old boys who have to have their knuckles slapped” for misbehavior.
Begin was on a roll. He told Lewis that Israel wouldn’t be intimidated by threats of punishment and that they would fall on deaf ears. He vowed not to allow “the sword of Damocles to hang over Israel’s head… Jews had survived without a strategic cooperation memorandum with America for 3,700 years, and can live without it for another 3,700 years.”
The Golan legislation, Begin stressed, wouldn’t be annulled.
This earful was immediately released verbatim by the Prime Minister’s Office for publication, so the populace would know its government drew red lines and stood by them.
However, Israel’s left-dominated media never lost an opportunity to lay bare its obsequiousness. It reacted with the shock of a stern cleric to outright unpardonable blasphemy. But more than it was genuinely upset, it exploited Begin’s candid indignation as yet another pretext to pillory him. National pride was already then perceived as reactionary and uncool, especially when it clashed with post-Zionist dogma.
HOW LIKE the reaction by most of our subservient scribblers and talking heads to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unsolicited recommendation that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu kick out Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and replace him with Tzipi Livni. No matter whether we like or dislike Lieberman, it’s at instances like these that no consideration ought to feature in our internal discourse other than national pride.
Put in the context of Sarkozy’s infamous big mouth, his insolence toward Lieberman is no big deal. Sarkozy apparently appointed himself freelance caustic critic of far more prominent figures on the world stage than our foreign minister. The meek retort by Netanyahu – the ostensible heir to Begin’s mantle – is of greater concern. Yet most disconcerting of all is the alacrity with which current Israeli commentators – fully in the footsteps of Sam Lewis’s suck-ups of yesteryear – seize with alacrity any chance to further their agenda. In some cases the triumphant gloating at Lieberman’s humiliation was tangible. To that end it was excusable to portray Sarkozy’s scorn as gospel.
Such glee is nowadays frequently afforded our pundits, including many employees at the state’s own broadcasting authority – the one involuntarily subsidized by you and me. Not a day goes by without some pronouncement from the Obama court about how Israel must comply with Washington’s decree to cease all “construction in the settlements,” including in much of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s response – on those rare occasions when any at all is heard – is as wan as it was in Paris. He appears timid and wishy-washy. His heart is in the right place, but he is too nervous to utter a fitting rejoinder. Trepidation may be embellished as signifying prudent restraint, as not breaching diplomatic protocol Begin-style, as keeping a cool head and, calculatingly, a tight lip.
Ah, if it were only so.
Unfortunately there’s too much cause to suspect that Netanyahu is irresolute. He may not quake in his boots, but he is too insecure vis-a-vis Obama’s barefaced arrogance and Israel’s own homegrown hecklers. Netanyahu’s passivity would be bad enough were this a fixed nonfluctuating situation. The problem is that it isn’t.
The more Netanyahu consents to taking it on the chin, the more audacious Obama gets and the more any head of government anywhere feels empowered to chime in and add his/her two cents’ worth. Even the relatively friendly Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi couldn’t resist getting in on the act. Obama strikes the tone, while others sing along and relish harmony at Israel’s expense.
As the British government teeter-totters on the brink of collapse, its headliners appear united solely by their obsession with 50 housing units in the Jerusalem suburb of Geva Binyamin (a.k.a Adam), five kilometers northeast of Israel’s capital. It boggles the mind to think that world stability hinges on the project not being completed.
Nevertheless this is the consistent international de rigueur mantra. It is what non-too-impartial NGOs abroad haughtily hector. It is what a slew of accomplice “peace-promoting” local NGOs (which derive their funding from European and other less-than-friendly overseas benefactors) trendily reiterate. It is what the Israeli coterie of tendentious left-wing news purveyors unquestioningly chants.
Under these circumstances, the pushy presumptuousness toward Israel becomes inevitable. Israel earned the disdain it encounters everywhere. Foreign governments take liberties against Israeli sovereignty that would be inconceivable against any other independent country. It’s doubtful any other state anywhere would be treated with similar disrespect, not just by inimical leaders like Obama, but even by emissaries like George Mitchell. Ours is to do their bidding even at our palpable peril.
The more Netanyahu delays forthrightly defying such international chutzpa, the more he invites it. There are times when seemly circumspection is contraindicated. Begin by now would have called the American ambassador to order and sent an unequivocal message to said ambassador’s boss, even at the risk of local sycophants rushing to brownnose the latter-day Sam Lewis.
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