When Presidents Show Backbone, Israel Listens
Where is Eisenhower, Now That We Need Him?
Outrage over Biden’s unqualified support with weapons and intelligence for Israel’s campaign of slaughter in Gaza is sometimes accompanied by reference to those rare but significant occasions when U.S. presidents told the Israelis to reverse course. For readers unfamiliar with these instructive precedents, here they are.
In 1956, Israel secretly conspired with the U.K. and France to attack Egypt. The Eisenhower Administration moved to halt this maneuver, endorsing a U.N. resolution calling for a ceasefire, which the invaders agreed to observe. But Israel indicated that it was not prepared to follow through by pulling out of the Egyptian territory it had overrun. Accordingly, on November 7, 1956, Eisenhower addressed a letter to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. After reminding him of the ceasefire agreement, the president continued: “Statements attributed to your Government to the effect that Israel does not intend to withdraw from Egyptian territory, as requested by the United Nations, have been called to my attention. I must say frankly, Mr. Prime Minister, that the United States views these reports, if true, with deep concern…It would be a matter of the greatest regret to all my countrymen if Israeli policy on a matter of such grave concern to the world should in any way impair the friendly cooperation between our two countries.”
Even Ike’s stern words and thinly veiled threat did not do the trick. The Israelis still refused to pull out of the Sinai and Gaza while deploying their already powerful lobby to pressure Washijngton to allow them to hang on to their ill-gotten gains. Congress, even then cowed by the lobby, refused to back Eisenhower’s position. Fed up, Eisenhower opted to take his case directly to the American people. In a nationwide T.V. address on February 20, 1957, he declared: “If the United Nations once admits that international disputes can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization and our best hope of establishing world order. The United Nations must not fall. I believe that in the interests of peace the United Nations has no choice but to exert pressure upon Israel to comply with the withdrawal resolutions.” Backing rhetoric with action, he told Ben Gurion he would levy trade sanctions on Israel and block private aid to the country. It worked. The Israeli army finally withdrew to Israel’s own borders.
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Jimmy Carter is normally not cited in this list but he deserves a place nonetheless, as the following episode indicates. In March 1978, in response to a Palestinian attack inside Israel that killed 37 civilians, the IDF lunged into Southern Lebanon in what the Israelis called Operation Litani. An estimated 2,000 people were killed, most of them civilians. Carter insisted that the Israelis obey a United Nations resolution calling on them to withdraw. Though they eventually agreed to do so, the IDF continued to dally in its new holdings south of Lebanon’s Litani River. The US government reiterated its demand. Finally, the Israelis reported that all their forces and equipment were back across the border. But Carter knew from satellite photographs that they were lying. He accordingly sent Begin a letter. It stated that unless Israel did what it had promised within 24 hours, he would move to cut off all aid. Richard Viets, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the US embassy in Tel Aviv, was told to track down Begin and hand him the letter. What happened then reveals how Israeli leaders personally react when Uncle Sam actually makes his view plain.