Reagan years marked the beginning of a long, roller-coaster ride with Israel

While most of America and Europe focused on the 60th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy on Sunday, little notice was made of the anniversary of another June 6 invasion, this one 22 years ago. None of the D-Day commanders is still around, but the man behind the 1962 operation is still very much in power.

He is Ariel Sharon, and his mission that day was to liberate northern Israel and Lebanon from Palestine Liberation Organization terror. Yasser Arafat had created a mini-state within Lebanon, making it a base for attacks deep into Israel, particularly with his long-range Soviet artillery.

Sharon claimed he had an amber light to invade from Secretary of State Alexander Haig, and it was announced he planned to drive only about 25 miles into Lebanon to clean out the terrorists. But when he wound up going all the way to Beirut, the light turned red, and so did the administration of Ronald Reagan, who died on Saturday, June 5.

It wasn’t the first time Sharon’s policies had stirred Reagan’s ire, and it wouldn’t be the last. It’s conveniently forgotten, but during much of President Reagan’s first term, the two countries seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Reagan is rightfully being eulogized as a great friend of Israel, but there was often a gap between his personal sympathies and the actions of his administration. That’s attributable in large part to the influence of a powerful trio of Israel’s adversaries: Vice President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III.

It would be unfair to blame all the friction on that trio. The Israeli government provided its share of chafing.

Almost exactly a year before the Lebanon invasion, Israel knocked out Iraq’s nuclear reactor, a genuine mitzvah that Reagan reportedly appreciated privately but not officially. His U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, collaborated with her Iraqi counterpart on a unanimous Security Council resolution condemning Israel, and the Reagan administration embargoed F-16 deliveries to Israel.

That crisis was followed by the Capitol Hill battle over the sale of AWACS early warning aircraft and upgrades for F-15s to Saudi Arabia. Because I was very much involved in that episode, I can vouch that Menachem Begin and his government scrupulously stayed out of the fight, but that didn’t stop the innuendo. Members of Congress reported White House aides told them they had to make a choice: “Reagan or Begin.”

A miffed Reagan unfairly chastised Begin, “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.”

During the third week of the Lebanon war, I drove from Israel to Jounieh, Lebanon, just north of Beirut, with two Israeli officials and saw Israeli forces being greeted as liberators by Shiite Muslims as well as Christians. There was much fresh graffiti in Arabic taking Arafat’s name in vain and questioning his paternity.

But it didn’t take long for Israel’s Lebanese welcome to sour, along with Jerusalem’s relations with Washington. The siege of Beirut led to intense international pressure on the White House to force Israel to permit Arafat and his followers to leave safely.

Haig was replaced in late June 1982 by George Shultz, who had initially turned down the job because he reportedly felt Reagan was too pro-Israel. But he turned out to be one of the best friends Israel ever had in that job, although not before yet another crisis arose.

At Shultz’s initiative, Reagan offered a Middle East peace plan that was sprung on Israel after having been vetted by the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Begin didn’t like the snub or the plan, and he quickly rejected it over the counsel of several advisers, including Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Reagan plan was relatively mild by today’s standards. It opposed Palestinian statehood and Israeli annexation, proposing instead a fully autonomous “self-government Palestinian authority” linked to Jordan.

The Reagan years were also a period of dramatically increased strategic cooperation between the two countries. Israel shared with Washington Soviet bloc weapons captured in Lebanon and lessons learned in confronting Soviet-built Syrian planes and air defense.

Trust between the two military and intelligence establishments broadened and deepened. Notably, relations improved dramatically between the two navies, thanks largely to Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. But his good work and Israel’s cause suffered a severe setback with the capture of Jonathan Pollard, the messianic volunteer spy who stole countless documents while serving as a Naval intelligence analyst.

It took many years to recover from the damage he did, and many in the Israeli intelligence establishment have said Pollard did more harm than good.

As president, Reagan spoke of his — and America’s — “ironclad” commitment to Israeli security, but the ups and downs of the relationship led a top pro-Israel lobbyist to liken the relationship to a roller coaster. It began to level out after Shultz took over. His greatest contribution was to overcome the Bush-Weinberger-Baker cabal, building on Reagan’s affection for Israel. Shultz’s help proved critical in turning around an Israeli economy wracked by hyperinflation.

By the end of the Reagan administration, when Shultz announced U.S. recognition of the PLO (partly out of frustration with the government of Yitzhak Shamir and partly as a favor to the incoming Bush administration), a call from the prime minister’s top aide, urging Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill to start a “firestorm” of protest against the move, was flatly rejected.

Reagan, with Shultz’s help, by then enjoyed such a high level of trust in the pro-Israel camp that the decision went unchallenged. What was once unacceptable has become a norm, setting the stage for the ambitious but largely unsuccessful peace efforts by succeeding administrations.

It is an irony of history that 22 years after Operation Peace for Galilee drove the PLO out of Lebanon — and a day after Ronald Reagan’s death — Sharon marked the occasion with a Cabinet decision to withdraw from Gaza and turn it over to the Palestinians.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant who was formerly chief legislative lobbyist for AIPAC.

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Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.