Reagan’s Legacy On Israel

Ronald Reagan will be fondly remembered as perhaps the most pro-Israel president in history, but that view is protected in part by the same Teflon that allowed Reagan to avoid being tarnished by many of the negative events of his presidency. While Reagan was indeed a great friend of Israel, his administration also engaged in the most public rebukes of Israel.

At some gut level, Reagan understood and appreciated Israel, though he never visited the Jewish state. Part of this emotional attachment no doubt stemmed from his religious beliefs, and part from his Manichaean world view that placed Israel clearly on the side of good against the Evil Empire.

Reagan’s greatest substantive contribution to the U.S.-Israel relationship was the formalization of strategic cooperation, which created a web of ties between the Pentagon and IDF and a progressive strengthening of Israel’s military capability. At the same time, however, he also significantly strengthened the Arabs by selling them some of America’s most sophisticated weapons. In 1981, Reagan successfully overcame the Israeli lobby’s opposition to his proposed sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. This was a watershed event because the lobby never mounted a significant challenge to an arms sale again. The AWACs campaign was also notable for its nastiness. It was cast as Reagan versus Israeli Prime Minister Begin, and the President did not hide his distaste for the Israeli leader.

Also in 1981, Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak. Reagan was furious and the U.S. supported the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel. On the other hand, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, was one of Israel’s staunchest defenders, and the U.S. vetoed more than a dozen other anti-Israel resolutions.

While other presidents privately threatened to withhold aid or take other measures against Israel, Reagan did not hesitate to publicly punish Israel. After Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, Reagan suspended the strategic cooperation agreement prompting Begin to accuse Reagan of treating Israel like a “banana republic.” The U.S. also suspended the delivery of F-16 jet fighters to Israel after the raid on Osirak. In both instances, the penalties were only temporary.

Reagan worked to free of Soviet Jews, and also approved the CIA-sponsored rescue of 500 Ethiopian Jews in 1985's Operation Joshua. He also was responsible for helping to reform Israel’s economy. In 1985, following a severe economic crisis in Israel, which sent inflation rates soaring as high as 445%, the U.S. approved a $1.5 billion emergency assistance package and helped formulate Israel’s successful economic stabilization plan.

Under Reagan, Israel began to receive $3 billion annually in foreign aid and, from 1985 on, the aid was all in the form of grants. Israel was allowed to use some of this aid in Israel and for a time was permitted to devote U.S. funds to the development of its own fighter plane. In 1985, the U.S. also signed its first Free Trade Agreement – with Israel. In fact, a series of memoranda of understanding were signed during the Reagan administration between U.S. agencies and their Israeli counterparts that promoted cooperation in a range of fields such as education, space research and health.

When Israel decided to launch Operation Peace for Galilee, Reagan was initially supportive, but he gradually soured on the Israeli operation as it dragged on and drew U.S. forces into the Lebanese quagmire. In August 1982, Reagan gave Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership protection from Israel and allowed them to go into exile in Tunis. More significantly, in December 1988, Reagan authorized the State Department to enter into a dialogue with the PLO, reversing the U.S. policy of refusing to recognize the terrorist organization. This ended Israel’s hope of marginalizing the PLO and stimulating the development of an alternative leadership. In the short-run, this made Oslo possible, but, today, Israel and the United States are trying to undo the longer-term damage caused by that decision.

During the Lebanon war, unknown to Israel, Reagan formulated a new diplomatic initiative designed to stimulate peace negotiations, improve Israel-Egypt relations and provide impetus for Jordan to join the peace process. It was also aimed at pleasing those Arab states who had accepted PLO evacuees from Beirut and signaling them that the U.S. was seeking a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel alone was not involved in the new American thinking.

On September 1, 1982, Reagan announced that he opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, but believed the Palestinians should have self-government in association with Jordan. He said Jerusalem should remain undivided, but its final status negotiated. He called for a settlement freeze and suggested that Israel could not be expected to return to the 1967 borders. Sounds pretty good today, but Begin rejected the plan and when he heard about it said: “It is the saddest day of my life.”

While Israel drew the United States into Lebanon, it was the United States that drew Israel into the Iran-Contra affair. The sale of U.S. arms to Iran through Israel began in the summer of 1985, after receiving the approval of President Reagan.

When you look at the balance sheet presented here, and compare it with other administrations, one might wonder how Reagan could be viewed as “the most pro-Israel president” in history. Reagan was very tough on Israel, and some of his policies caused both short and long-term damage, but his policies also led to significant improvements in Israel’s economic and military strength, and raised the U.S.-Israel friendship to a higher level.

The ledger doesn’t really capture the sense of the time and the man, however, which takes me back to where I started. Reagan projected the feeling that he truly appreciated Israel’s role in the world and that the occasional tensions did not affect his fundamental commitment to Israel’s security, so when he said Israel and America “will always remain at each othe’'s side,” we believed him.