As Max Fisher, the philanthropist-cum-diplomat, went on for what seemed like forever, attempting to prove newly inaugurated president Ronald Reagan’s love for Israel, Prime Minister Menachem Begin remained silent.
So Fisher kept talking. Eventually, Fisher figured out how to get a response from the embattled and difficult-to-impress Israeli premier: “You know, of course, that the Reagan administration views the Middle East quite differently from the Carter administration,” he said.
“The mere mention of Jimmy Carter’s name caused an expression of exasperation to spread across the prime minister’s features,” writes Yehuda Avner, who was in the room. Avner was an adviser and speechwriter to four Israeli prime ministers — Begin, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin — and his engaging memoirs come at a perfect time for those with the Gipper on their minds as we approach what would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday.
Once Fisher had goaded a response from Begin about Carter, the prime minister asked Fisher why he was so convinced he’d be impressed by Reagan.
“To begin with,” Fisher answered, “he admires your anti-Communism and tough stance. He sees the region almost exclusively through Cold War lenses; it’s black and white. We stand by Israel because Israel is on our side, while many of the Arab countries are allies of the Soviet Union. It’s as simple as that.”
Begin responded by joking that he’d heard sometimes the former actor confused reality with the movies. Fisher’s response, while said with a hearty laugh, can be looked back on now as prescient, serious, and perhaps one of the reasons the two leaders — Begin and Reagan — in the end got along better than expected.
“Some do say that in his mind, history is the saga of the brave, good-hearted men and women battling daunting odds, forever trying to do the right thing,” Fisher said.
To be sure, the relationship between “Menakem” and “Ron,” as they called each other, did not get off to the most auspicious start. Before the two had even met, Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. Reagan was miffed because he hadn’t been forewarned. It turned out that, actually, the mission had been planned in full consultation with the Carter administration, but Carter had conveniently forgotten to inform Reagan.
Begin was both impressed and moved when Reagan welcomed him for their first visit in Washington with full ceremonial honors, “treating him as the head of an allied government, not an obdurate dependent — which some of the president’s men considered him to be,” as Avner tells it.
Begin was obviously comfortable with Reagan’s worldview. When Reagan referred to Israel as a “strategic asset,” Begin felt confident enough to push it one step further.
Given the shared interests and values of the two nations, Begin said, “Might I suggest the time has come to publicly acknowledge that Israel is not just a strategic asset, but a full-fledged strategic ally.”
Avner notes the impossibility of any Israeli leader — let alone Begin — making such a remark to the Carter administration. But Reagan, he knew, was different. Though Begin never got the mutual defense treaty he was pushing for, he did get the acknowledgement that Israel was, indeed, an ally.
There was more strife down the road for the two leaders, however. Israel’s counteroffensive against the PLO in South Lebanon strained the relationship. But here, too, Reagan proved he could be open-minded about Israel’s predicament. When Reagan lectured Begin on the reports of civilian casualties, Begin painstakingly explained how the media reports not only weren’t true, but could not possibly be true. In a meeting that was supposed to be a dressing-down, Reagan became convinced the Israelis were getting a bad rap in the press. He brought Begin in to meet with his cabinet and told Begin to repeat to them what he had just told the president. Begin obliged, and left feeling a bit better about the trust between the two men.
Another test came with the killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The Israelis were blamed for supposedly allowing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias. The accusation was outrageous, but it wounded Begin. Here again, however, Reagan stood out. Avner was able to report to his boss that “there are people in the [Reagan] administration who are angry, but not the president.”
Serially underestimated by their friends and foes alike (not to mention the media), Reagan and Begin had a lot more in common than most people realized. They could not have looked like more of an odd couple — Reagan the tall and handsome former actor, Begin the pugnacious and weary former underground warrior — but they shared an understanding of the world and a faith in freedom that kept them on the right side of history. They were, you might say, “brave, good-hearted men … forever trying to do the right thing.”
— Seth Mandel is a foreign-affairs writer based in Washington, D.C., and an associate editor of NewsReal Blog.