When George H.W. Bush died last year, we revisited the idea that he was a one-term president in part because he vigorously took on the Israel lobby over settlements in 1991, and paid a price. Even Tom Friedman said that was the political lesson of the Bush presidency for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, neither of whom did much to oppose settlements.
And everyone knows that settlements bedeviled the Obama presidency. “It is time for these settlements to stop,” Obama declared in Cairo, till he faced reelection, and reversed course two years later under pressure from Netanyahu and Jewish organizations, and vetoed a settlements resolution at the U.N. And then he reversed course again– and in one of the last acts of his presidency, Obama allowed an anti-settlements resolution to go through in December 2016 (a move that Donald Trump sought to undermine by reaching out to the Russians).
What I did not know till I read the new book, “Jimmy Carter, The White House Years,” by his former top domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat, is that Israeli settlements also bedeviled the Carter administration. From the beginning of his presidency in 1977, Jimmy Carter determined that the settlements were an obstacle to peace because they stood in the way of a Palestinian homeland, which he wished to help establish in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Carter and his secretary of state Cyrus Vance and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski repeatedly hammered the Israeli government to end Jewish colonization or at least freeze it.
Carter failed miserably in this aim, overwhelmed by a new force he had not accurately reckoned: American Jewish organizations. “I will commit suicide before I abandon Israel,” Carter promised Jewish congressmen when they met with him to express concern about his policy. But Carter could not abandon a parallel commitment to Palestine; and Eizenstat says that Carter believes that taking on Israel and its American lobby cost him his job.
“From the New York primary [in March 1980] onward, I believe Carter was left with the view that New York Jews had not only defeated him in the primary but were also a factor in his loss in November,” Eizenstat writes.
As Eizenstat states bluntly, Israel relies on the lobby as a sort of foreign ministry, a relationship “unique in the annals of diplomacy.” And other politicians heeded Carter’s experience:
It is even clearer in the decades since, that progress on these same intractable issues with which Carter was struggling forty years ago can come only with a president willing to take enormous domestic political heat and plow ahead. None have done so since with the same combination of his grit and determination—indeed, perhaps because of the political wounds he suffered.
The story of Carter’s repeated and bitter clashes with Israel and its American Jewish lobby is told with meticulous care by the Washington lawyer. And Eizenstat cannot be impeached because he is himself part of the lobby. He served as Hillary Clinton’s liaison to the Jewish community during her 2016 campaign, and after meeting with Netanyahu, per Wikileaked emails, he pressed Clinton to promise that she would welcome Netanyahu soon after she took office so as to repair the damage Obama had done, and conveyed to the campaign Netanyahu’s advice on fighting boycott (“Attack, attack, attack”).
His book came out last April but has gotten no attention for these revelations. Just as the running theme of Ben Rhodes’s White House foreign policy memoir has been ignored: Obama fought the lobby at every turn, to the point of anguish that he was being called an anti-semite for pushing the Iran deal: “Come on… This is aggravating… This isn’t about anti-Semitism… They’re trying to take away our best argument, that it’s this or war.”
Last month in the New York Times, Michelle Alexander wrote that the Israel lobby’s power is “well-documented.” Maybe it is: but only in books like this and transgressive websites. If the mainstream reported on Eizenstat’s book, they would be forced to acknowledge that for 50 years the Israel lobby has nullified American policy on an important Middle East issue, Israeli colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, thus destroying the possibility of a two state solution. The occupation is an American Jewish achievement.
Stuart Eizenstat, on German television in 2013
The greatest service I can provide is to pass along Eizenstat’s narrative in depth.
I. The Jewish Community Becomes Alarmed in the First Months of Carter’s Presidency When He Speaks of a Palestinian Homeland
Throughout his presidency Carter had greater sympathy for the Palestinians than the Israelis for the same reason that he expressed sympathy for them in his famous 2006 book: they are the victims. The political outsider and former peanut farmer and Navy officer appeared to like his Arab interlocutors, such as Anwar Sadat, more than Israeli ones, such as Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin, and he was capable of Biblical commentary about Christ’s killing that left Jews cold.
Eizenstat, a religious Jew and Atlanta lawyer, had signed on to Carter’s campaign and helped him to articulate positions on Israel that would gain him support and funding from the Jewish community. He writes that Carter flipflopped on those promises. After reading a Brookings Institution report on Israel and Palestine that urged a return by Israel to the ’67 borders and political sovereignty for the Palestinians either in a state or as part of Jordan, in exchange for Israel’s recognition by Arab countries, Carter bought into these findings “whole and entire,” even if such plans had to be imposed on the Israelis, Eizenstat says– although these stances “could not have been more different from the campaign positions I had helped craft for him as a candidate.”
Carter also bought into Brzezinski’s realist view that the Palestinian problem was hurting the U.S. “[T]he conventional wisdom of American experts on the Middle East was that the central problem of the region was the relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and by extension that normalizing them would resolve many of the region’s disputes.”
But Carter underestimated the power of the Jewish community. In the ’70s, Jews overcame anti-Semitic discrimination to assume roles in the U.S. power structure; and the 1967 and 1973 wars galvanized American Jews on Israel’s behalf; and the result was that the Israel lobby emerged as an important factor in politics. When the president criticized the Israeli settlements, the lobby swung into action and often echoed Israeli government talking points.
Eizenstat writes that the lobby exercised its power chiefly through the Congress, and serves as a kind of foreign ministry.
[There is a] special triangular relationship among Israel, the America Jewish leadership and the Congress… effectively applying pressure on the presidency to modify U.S. policy to Israel’s benefit. This is unique in the annals of diplomacy. There are other countries, such as Britain, that have a favored relationship with the United States but exert their influence through traditional diplomacy rather than relying heavily on a domestic American constituency and lobbying Congress. For a vulnerable, small country like Israel, surrounded by enemies, perfecting this unusual brand of political diplomacy was essential. While it existed to a limited degree before the Carter administration, it was honed to much greater use during our term in office. Since then it has only grown in dimension and intensity to be one of Washington’s most effective lobbies.
“Carter was to discover this through painful experience,” Eizenstat states.
One delusion the White House had was that because Israel had elected a rightwing Prime Minister in May 1977 — Menachem Begin — Carter would be able to “mobilize on behalf of a settlement a significant portion of the American Jewish community,” as Brzezinski put it.
Eizenstat flatly informed Brzezinski he was wrong: “Jewish groups would rally to Begin’s views as a demonstration of their unyielding support for Israel.”
And Eizenstat was right:
oon enough the administration’s positions would unite the American Jewish leadership behind Begin.”
Eizenstat says that the White House did not appreciate that American Jews had come to feel that loyalty to Israel was a proof of Jewish identity– and vicarious power.
What Carter and Brzezinski did not fully understand was that support for any incumbent Israeli government was the ultimate litmus test of Jewish identity for mainstream Jewish leaders. It remains so, even when sorely tried by Israeli politicians. Many leading American Jews fear that publicly undercutting Israel’s leaders would weaken Israel itself and impair their own ties to the Jewish homeland and the Israeli leadership, which is a symbol of their clout.
Still, Carter stuck by his principles, an “unscripted commitment to a Palestinian homeland.”
In June 1977, Morris Amitay, the head of AIPAC, the leading Israel lobby group (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), met with Eizenstat; Carter’s top political aide, Ham Jordan; and Carter’s liaison to the Jewish community, Mark Siegel. Jordan later typed out a long memo on the “Jewish lobby” to Carter, locking the only copy in his office safe.
Jordan wanted to take the president’s head “out of the clouds” and demonstrate to his boss the political impact of his policy. “Ham began by pointing out that American Jews vote in greater proportion to their size than any other group; they are predominantly Democratic and have remained so despite economic and educational advances that traditionally lead other groups to change parties. And in key states like New York, the influence of Jews in primaries is often decisive,” Eizenstat related.
Hamilton Jordan and Jimmy Carter in the White House.
Jordan went on to point out that Jews were financially very generous: “70 of the 125 members of the Democratic National Council were Jews who constituted more than 60 percent of the large donors to the Democratic Party.” The 2006 book “The Israel Lobby” by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer contains other crucial details from the Jordan memo: Over 60 percent of Nixon’s 1972 campaign funds came from Jewish donors, as well as over 75 percent of Humphrey’s 1968 campaign funds and 90 percent of (neoconservative) Scoop Jackson’s 1976 primary campaign funds. And even though Carter had been a long shot, about 35 percent of his primary funds were from Jewish donors.
Then Jordan “described the importance of AIPAC” — “a strong but paranoid lobby,” Jordan wrote, “concentrating the political force of all major Jewish organizations on Congress in defense of Israeli interests.”
“Their collective mobilizing ability is unsurpassed in terms of the quality and quantity of political communications that can be triggered on specific issues perceived to be critical to Israel [and without a] political counterforce that opposes the specific goals of the Jewish lobby.” He also ranked the one hundred members of the Senate according to their support for Israel—only three were “generally negative.”
You will notice that there is not a word here about Christian Zionists. They are not a factor on the Democratic side– weren’t then, aren’t now.
Jordan also told Carter he had used words like “homeland for the Palestinians” without “reassuring elaborations.”
“The cumulative effect of your statements on the Middle East and the various bilateral meetings with the heads of state has been generally pleasing to the Arabs and displeasing to the Israelis and the American Jewish community.”
Carter accepted Jordan’s Rx: to do outreach to the Jewish press and Congress and Jewish leaders.
“The problem was that the policy did not change, and there was no real effort to take into account American Jewish concerns,” Eizenstat says. “I sensed that Brzezinski, Vance, and to a degree Carter himself saw domestic outreach as a nuisance, and felt that foreign policy in general, and the Middle East in particular, should be insulated from domestic politics. … And the president’s lack of political sensitivity was sometimes breathtaking.”
Israeli leaders were able to rally and script American Jews. Begin’s emissary and former Irgun comrade Shmuel Katz came to the States and in a meeting with Reform Jewish leaders said that the pressure to leave the West Bank was a recipe for war and: “We are confident that the Jewish community in America will stand out courageously and challenge its government if it becomes necessary.”
Eizenstat says, “he was right.”
II. Mondale Tries to Put on the Brakes
Even as some in the administration, including the politically-sensitive vice president, Walter Mondale, “tried to calm the Jewish community, it was not clear that the president had fully internalized the domestic political dangers,” Eizenstat writes.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale
Mondale called Eizenstat to his office in June 1977. Unlike Vance, Carter and Brzezinski, “the vice president believed that foreign policy and domestic politics could not be separated, because the former required support of the latter to be effective.” Mondale poured out his frustrations, Eizenstat writes. “Stu, we will be in bad shape politically if he gets on the outs with the Jewish community, which is about to blow up over the president’s positions on Israel.”
Mondale felt Carter “hadn’t brought along the Jewish community.”
But Carter didn’t see it the same way. In a prefiguring of George H.W. Bush’s 1991 complaint that he was one lonely guy taking on 1000 lobbyists over settlements, Carter was “angered by what he saw as the Jewish leadership’s ‘irrational lobbying.’”
Eizenstat then tried to get a letter signed by senators supporting Carter. But that died “after Humphrey withdrew as a signatory to the proposed letter; AIPAC’s lobbying had succeeded.”
Jordan was panicked. “[W]e have galvanized public opinion in Israel against us and – I am afraid—alienated in a permanent way the American Jewish community.”
And all of this just through declarations of policy! The fear was that the United States was trying to impose a plan that would force Israel back to its 1967 boundaries to create a separate state for the Palestinians on the West Bank.
III. Carter Blindsides Israel by Announcing an International Peace Conference to Give Palestinians a Voice.
In July 1977, the White House convened an important meeting with Jewish leaders, about 50 from across the nation, led by Rabbi Alex Shindler of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Mondale, Vance, and Brzezinski sought to assure the leaders that nothing would be imposed on Israel.
“The Jewish leaders responded by accusing us of being too lax in our definition of peace with the Arabs… Mondale retorted with great conviction that the administration did not expect Israel to withdraw from the territories it acquired in the 1967 war without assurances of real peace. … Shindler remained unpersuaded and complained that Israel had little room for negotiation.”
Carter came in for the second hour of the gathering so as to “assuage the apprehensions that he was working against Israel’s interests.” He said he would work with Begin, work to strengthen Israel’s esteem for Begin, and promised that he would not dictate a plan.
“But in words no other president has used before or since, he described the problems of the Palestinians as ‘a cancer which needs to be healed. They need a home and a redress of wrongs.’”
Shindler was dubious. “[Your] words are not perceived as you intended them to be… We are nervous; this leads to a toughening of the Israeli backbone.”
The Jewish leaders were followed that month by Begin himself, on his first visit to the U.S. as prime minister. Meeting Carter and other officials in the Cabinet Room, he “launched into a historical tutorial unlike anything that any Israeli leader had given to a U.S. president. It was a detailed history of grievances.”
Shades of Netanyahu lecturing Obama 34 years later, Begin went on for a half hour, pulling out a map of the country to show the “perilous geography” and lecturing about European discrimination against Jews, the British conduct in Palestine, Arab attacks, and the heroic defense by Israelis “as if he were addressing a class of uneducated students.”
Carter cited UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) as the basis for negotiation. He saw them as a path to a Palestinian homeland linked to Jordan “rather than … an independent state.” He sought Israeli withdrawal from West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan “with minor modifications,” conditioned by security not settlements.
But Begin dug his heels in on the idea of leaving the West Bank. Eizenstat says Carter was prescient in “bluntly telling Begin: ‘New settlements on the West Bank might prevent the peace conference itself, as it will foreclose negotiations in the future.’”
Begin cited Jabotinsky. “We cannot prevent Jews from building on land in the original land of Israel of the Bible.”
Carter begged for a freeze as a sign of good faith. But Begin refused.
The encounter left Carter annoyed and exasperated. He spoke to Eizenstat in August 1977 and said of Israelis: “They do not want peace.” He also said that Israel had “misled” him on relations with South Africa and the nuclear program, a collaboration that he knew from “intelligence data.” That alliance has since been amply documented.
The president continued to butt heads with Israeli officials over the coming months. Carter wanted to give Palestinians “a voice in their own future.” But Israelis were deadset against such a thing. Ambassador Ephraim “Eppie” Evron and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan met Carter and didn’t like him. Evron commented on his “very artificial smile.” Dayan rejected Carter’s plans “as possibly leading to an independent Palestinian state.”
The Israelis cited several private written commitments by previous administrations to Israel, including a promise by Nixon to Golda Meir in 1970 that there would be no Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories till there was total peace with Arab countries and Nixon and Gerald Ford assuring Israel that it would get “advance consultations” before the US made “any major decision.”
Then on October 1, 1977, the U.S. blindsided Israel. The White House and the Soviet Union announced a Geneva conference on the Middle East with the obvious intention of declaring a superpowers’ plan for peace.
Some staff rebelled. Jordan was enraged. Mark Siegel almost swerved off the road he was so shocked to hear the news.
“[A] firestorm arose, orchestrated by Dayan. The American Jewish leadership went into open war against the president in ways rarely seen before or since…. The casus belli was not just the lack of prior consultation with Israel but an elevation of the interest of the Palestinians into ‘legitimate rights’…”
The Conference of Presidents sent a telegram to Vance decrying “an abandonment of America’s historic commitment to the security and survival of Israel.” While AIPAC warned that “the U.S. is devaluing commitments to Israel” and it organized a letter writing offensive in Congress.
Mark Siegel told Eizenstat in an interview that the announcement drove “Jimmy Carter’s stock in the American Jewish community substantially below any U.S. president since the creation of the state of Israel, and I’m including… Eisenhower’s stock.” He reminded Jordan of the number of states Carter won with strong Jewish support and concluded, “The talk in the American Jewish community is getting very ugly. The word ‘betrayal’ is being used more and more.”
Carter did not understand the reaction. He had a meeting with two Jewish aides, Eizenstat and White House counsel Bob Lipshutz, to ask why Jews were so upset. Eizenstat said he shared the concern that Palestinian participation in the conference “could be seen as a precursor to an independent Palestinian state on Israel’s border.”
Carter had to meet with Jewish congressmen on October 6. He said he should have briefed Congress in advance but said, “I will commit suicide before I abandon Israel.”
IV. A Superpower Caves to a Small State
“What happened next represented an embarrassing U-turn by the president,” Eizenstat writes. “One of the world’s two superpowers bowed to unprecedented domestic pressure reflecting the views and interests of a small state that was dependent upon the United States for military, political, and diplomatic support. This reflects the unusual relationship that existed for decades and continues today between the world’s strongest democracy and one of its smallest, if sturdiest, dependent states, and we were about to get a painful demonstration of how that worked.”
Ed Koch in 1983, at left, shaking hand of some joker. Woman at right is Ivana Trump.
On October 4, Carter went to the UN Plaza Hotel and was “ambushed at the helipad” by Ed Koch, then a congressman, soon to become New York’s mayor, angrily protesting the joint declaration. Carter then went to an all-night negotiation at the presidential suite of the hotel with Vance, Brzezinski, and Dayan. As the president walked in, Dayan said, “I think you have a problem on your hands, Mr. President. And I can perhaps help you out with it.” (As the policy aide/scholar William Quandt later told Eizenstat.)
Carter said, “What do you mean?”
Dayan said, “Well, obviously many people are upset by the October 1 statement. Many of our friends are upset by it…’” . But if they were to release a statement amending the original statement, “[I think] that I could help you politically.”
Eizenstat is honest about what hubris Dayan’s comments represented.
This was an amazing intrusion into domestic politics by a foreign minister, even from a friendly country. But it had clearly been based on Israel’s assiduous cultivation of American Jewish groups and Congress, and left no doubt how closely Middle East policy is intertwined with domestic politics…
It is difficult to imagine the foreign minister of any country being as blunt to the leader of its major benefactor, and the president bristled at this threat. He said Israel’s case could be damaged in the U.S. by such actions, leaving Israel “isolated” and would “cause a cleavage that might be serious.”
Carter said Israel was “by far the most obstinate and difficult” of countries the U.S. had to deal with in the Middle East. Still: “Dayan did not yield.”
But early the next morning, Dayan got his wish. Jody Powell released a statement on behalf of Carter and Dayan saying UN Security Council Resolutions 338 and 242 remained the basis for resumption of the Geneva conference “and that all the understandings and agreements” between the US and Israel remained in force; we won’t do anything without consulting you.
“[T]he fact remained that the president of the United States had reversed himself under intense pressure, hurting his credibility with both Israel and the Arab states… “
Eizenstat reflects that Carter had had to “tie himself into knots to reassure Jewish members of Congress.” Including that suicide comment. “Nevertheless we knew we were in deep political trouble.” Jordan was in despair over the “deteriorating relationship with the Jewish community,” and Mondale blasted Brzezinski’s role.
Carter compounded the problem when he sought to support an Egyptian resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning settlements as an obstacle to peace. Ham Jordan and Mondale were against it “on the basis of domestic politics.” Several aides “weighed in against the public condemnation of Israel” in a meeting with Carter in late October, proposing an abstention. Eizenstat says that the only vote against Israel at the UN by the US was during the ‘56 invasion. But Carter wanted to do so again:
“The president was so adamant that they were illegal, and so determined to show Egypt and the Arab world that he was not in Israel’s pocket, that he was willing to take the political heat at home and risk further straining relations with Israel.”
That, says Eizenstat, was the quintessential Jimmy Carter, wanting to do the right thing no matter what. But ultimately the aides prevailed. The U.S. abstained.
V. Even Alan Dershowitz Fears the Consequences of the Lobby’s Over-Reach
The biggest foreign policy achievement of the Carter administration was the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt signed in 1979. As Egyptian President Anwar Sadat launched that process with gestures toward Israel, and at last flew to the country in November 1977, Carter insisted that Palestinian autonomy must be part of a deal.
Menachem Begin’s vision of Palestinian autonomy “involved a kind of amputated Palestinian entity,” Sadat’s minister of state Boutros Boutros-Ghali wrote of initial meetings between the Egyptian and Israeli leaders. Walter Mondale cracked that you couldn’t even sell that in D.C. to people who sought home rule. But forty years later, of course, Israeli leaders are still talking about amputated Palestine and American leaders take them seriously.
What never changed in the administration, Eizenstat observes, was Carter’s “willingness to stake out positions that opposed Israeli policies.” Carter assured Sadat he favored Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories “completely” “with minor adjustments” and “self determination of the Palestinians short of an independent nation.”
In January 1978, Carter sent Begin a strong message criticizing settlement expansion as “an obstacle to peace.” And later that year when he gave a speech to the Jewish community to assure them of his commitment to Israel’s security and “opposition to a Palestinian state,” Eizenstat writes, the speech only created trouble when Carter referred to the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinians.
Sadat was willing to compromise and thereby help Carter with American Jews. The president wrote in his White House diaries that when he met Sadat at Camp David in February 1978, Sadat said he had “decided in one fell swoop to accomplish all these Israeli desires and get the U.S. Jew lobby (as he referred to it) off my shoulders.”
But Begin didn’t budge. He didn’t have to; he had the lobby. Compromise by Begin, Eizenstat says, “was made even more difficult by Israeli pressure that was exerted through American Jewish leaders.”
The administration sent repeated messages to the Israelis that they should stop settlements. Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz quoted Brzezinski in a cable back to Israel: “ISRAEL SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO GET AWAY WITH IT.”
Eizenstat relates that there “probably has not been a more confrontational meeting” between friends as the one in the Cabinet Room on March 22, 1978 at which Carter, Mondale, Brzezinski, Vance and Eizenstat met with Begin, Dayan, and Dinitz.
Carter said Israel was refusing to adhere to 242. And the U.S. sought “a voice for the Palestinians in their political future.” In a pointed echo of the Arab League’s three No’s in Khartoum in 1967, Carter cited Israel’s six No’s, all involving the refusal to countenance Palestinian self government and a halt to settlements.
Begin countered, “We won’t agree to halt settlements during the negotiations, we have the right to settle there.”
Amazingly, even Alan Dershowitz was alarmed by the Israeli stiffneckedness and the American Jewish support. He called Eizenstat and warned, “We’re creating the wrong [American] Jewish leadership, who are knee-jerk for whatever the government of Israel does.”
The mistrust was building, Eizenstat writes:
I explained to Carter that American Jews’ nervousness about our Middle East policy was rooted in the bitter memory of American inaction while millions of Eastern European Jews were murdered during World War II, and he made it clear that he understood. But it was also difficult for American Jews to understand Carter’s strategy of enhancing Israel’s security by trying to build bridges to moderate Arabs and the Palestinians.
P.S. It was during his visit with Begin that Carter announced a commission to establish an American memorial to the Holocaust.
VI. Camp David Accords Between Egypt and Israel Leave Palestinians Out in the Cold
At this time, the Carter administration further alienated American Jews by having a pitched battle with AIPAC over selling fighter jets to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Siegel quit over the F15 fighter sales, while the good cop in the administration, Fritz Mondale, went to Jerusalem at the end of June 1978 with US Jewish leaders, shmoozing them on the flight by serving lox, bagels and blintzes.
In a story that would anticipate Obama’s struggles with the American Jewish community, the LA Times reported that Carter’s policies were “having a corrosive impact on American Jewish opinion… A prominent Jewish businessman and campaign supporter of the president warned the White House that unless conditions changed for the better by 1980, ‘Jewish resources would be used to support a challenge to the President’s nomination.’“ That happened to Carter, but not Obama.
Carter hired a former AIPAC president, Ed Sanders, as an adviser on the Middle East, and meantime put all his personal and political capital on the line to convene Camp David talks, out of a sense of personal obligation to Sadat. Carter feared another war, and Sadat had told Carter he would have to have a war “to bring the Israelis back to the negotiating table.”
Sadat was willing to compromise even on Jerusalem to get a deal. Begin wanted one city indivisible, the capital of Israel. Begin ultimately allowed the US to fudge, saying that the American position on Jerusalem remained the same as the one previously set forth by US ambassadors to the U.N. but without spelling that out. Though UN resolutions said Jerusalem was occupied territory.
Carter pressed forward for promises of Palestinian autonomy, including passports in the name of Palestine and elections about the Palestinian future with all Palestinians voting from West Bank and abroad. Carter was encouraged by Vance, of whom Eizenstat said in contemporary notes, “Vance was very pro-Arab. Vance was impossible on this issue.” But other members of the administration stymied the president’s vision of autonomy. “It will be a disaster,” the vice president said.
Begin alienated Carter with what the president saw as bad faith. In draft language of the agreement, Palestinian “autonomy” was to be negotiated over 5 years and there was to be a settlement freeze during that period. But Begin ultimately interpreted the freeze as being for only 3 months— the period of negotiation for the Egyptian portion of the talks.
[T]he misunderstanding would sour the relationship between Begin and Carter for the balance of Carter’s term as president and, I believe, colored his relationship with Israel for the rest of his life…
“[H]e broke his promise,” Carter said.
Eizenstat acknowledges that Palestinians “were the biggest losers” of the accord. Egyptian officials rebelled over Sadat’s compromises, and one resigned; but Egyptian ambassador Abdel Raouf El Reedy told Eizenstat in a 2013 interview that Sadat washed his hands, saying: “[W]e have done for Palestine all that we could, but this problem will never be solved.”
Meantime, Israel demanded $3.3 billion from the U.S. to help it relocate a military base from the Sinai to Israel. Eizsentat never saw Carter hit the table with fury as he saw him do so now. He said he would not “allow Israel to ‘buy peace’” and he felt Israel was trying to “extort money” from the U.S.
VII. Egyptians and Israelis Sign a Deal, as Begin Jokes About Blowing Up the King David Hotel.
Carter acknowledged that “we’ve done nothing but lose politically” by opposing settlements, but he continued to pressure Begin to the point that Begin feared “a total break with Washington” over the settlements and Palestinians.
Still, the Israeli government expanded settlements in the West Bank even as negotiations on an Egyptian accord continued.
“Israel’s West Bank settlements became the third rail of Middle East diplomacy. It is possible that Carter could have resolved the dispute if he had been elected to a second term, but he was not. Ronald Reagan did not engage himself in the Middle East.”
Carter then extended himself by going to Israel in March 1979. In a meeting in the Presidential Suite of the King David Hotel, Begin bragged to Carter about blowing it up in 1946. “I’ve always liked the King David Hotel. You know, I blew it up once, using explosives in milk canisters.” He enjoyed the joke, smiling as he concluded, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it again.”
The emerging deal with Egypt included an energy agreement giving Israel access to U.S. oil at market prices if Israel could not meet its demands in the international markets, “a pledge the United States had never made before (or since) to any other country.” And Carter wanted to announce it before the election because “his Jewish support [was] lagging,” Eizenstat writes.
Protesters in Lafayette park chanted PLO, PLO, during the signing ceremony on March 26, 1979.
26 Mar 1979, Washington, D. C., USA — Egyptian President Anwar as-Sadat, US President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shake hands at the signing of the Camp David accords, a peace treaty signed by Sadat and Begin. Washington, D. C., USA, March 16, 1979. — Image by © CORBIS
VIII. Carter Loses the 1980 Election.
Carter lost in a “landslide, in the process garnering only 40 percent of the Jewish vote, the lowest percentage of any Democratic president in modern times.” How did that happen? Carter seemed “somewhat alien to his Jewish supporters” and managed to have a “series of botched diplomatic decisions about U.N. resolutions on Israel” that made matters worse, Eizenstat writes.
There was also the controversy ending Andrew Young’s tenure as Carter’s ambassador to the U.N.
Young had been elected to Congress in 1972. With Eizenstat’s help, Young had “developed a strong position on Israel that appealed to the influential Jewish community in Atlanta, and he carried this with him to Congress, where he compiled an impeccable pro-Israel voting record.”
But as ambassador Young held an informal meeting with Zehdi Labib Terzi, the PLO representative to the U.N. and a professor of English literature at Columbia, in the summer of 1979. He thereby “broke an official rule established by Henry Kissinger as secretary of state… agreeing with Israel that the United States would not negotiate with the PLO. Carter renewed this pledge during his election campaign to hold on to the Jewish vote, and Congress formalized and broadened the diplomatic ban in 1976.”
Eizenstat suggests that the Israelis leaked Young’s meeting. “No one knew better than Dayan how to rouse the anger of American Jewry” when it came to the Terzi meeting, Eizenstat says.
Young resigned and was replaced by Donald McHenry. And in March 1980 a Security Council resolution calling for the dismantling of settlements went through with U.S. support. “Vance and the president himself were looking for an opportunity to send a strong signal to Menachem Begin about the impact the expansion of settlements was having on talks about autonomy for the Palestinians.”
The White House believed all Jerusalem language was removed from that resolution, Eizenstat says; but it wasn’t. UN SC 465 contained numerous references to Jerusalem—and it was adopted three weeks before the New York Democratic primary.
The campaign staff in New York was in revolt, Mondale told Carter; workers were literally walking out of headquarters. “[Mondale] was livid and ‘discouraged,’ accurately forecasting it has ‘revived Kennedy’ and would cost Carter the New York primary…. Mondale was like a man possessed [saying,] ‘We’ve got a firestorm.'”
Carter disavowed the resolution, but Mondale blamed Vance, and Rosalynn Carter said Cy Vance had not a political bone in his body, for he testified to Congress and said that it was administration policy.
The damage was done. Previous to New York, President Carter had swept nine states across the Midwest and south and only lost Massachusetts. He had won Illinois, winning 70 percent of Jewish Democrats, and held a 20 percent lead over Kennedy in polls. It was reported that Kennedy was planning to withdraw after the New York primary. But: “In the primary we suffered massive Jewish defections.” And Kennedy won New York by 59 to 41 percent.
The opposition to settlements in a key UN vote had caused Carter’s alienation from the American Jewish establishment, Eizenstat says. “The howls of outrage from Israel, AIPAC and major American Jewish leaders reached their highest octave…. At a White House staff meeting on March 24, Carter complained, ‘The Jewish community has never given me a break, even when Begin is at the far extreme, and other Israelis agree with me.'”
Carter prevailed over Kennedy at the Democratic convention in New York; but in the general election Carter received “the lowest percentage of support from the American Jewish community of any modern Democratic presidential candidate” – 45 percent, down from 70 percent just 4 years before (Reagan and John Anderson split the remainder, 39/15).
Carter even paid for the historic peace treaty he had brokered between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. The president had “to push both sides, and the Jewish community didn’t like the fact that he had pushed Israel,” the president’s political guru the late Ham Jordan later said. Eizenstat writes:
“From the New York primary onward, I believe Carter was left with the view that New York Jews had not only defeated him in the primary but were also a factor in his loss in November. He was also hurt by bitter opposition over the U.N. vote from New York City’s egocentric Jewish mayor, Ed Koch, even after Carter had literally saved his city from bankruptcy.”
Ham Jordan said some of the opposition was cultural, a suspicion of Carter as a southern Baptist.
Begin also contributed to that dislike. “[A]lthough he spoke graciously about Carter from time to time, he continued making statements to try to rally the Jewish community to him in the peace process. Truly, no good deed goes unpunished.”
The Carter presidency is justly legendary. His devout push for Palestinian autonomy launched a two-state peace process that has failed for more than 40 years now (more than 70 going back to U.N. Partition), foiled by the Israeli government working with American Zionist leaders.
The lessons of Carter’s political downfall are with us to this day. He was in the White House during the arrival of the Israel lobby as a force in U.S. politics. The press’s willful ignorance of its power is of course a component of its effectiveness. Though that may at last be changing, witness Michelle Alexander’s piece in the New York Times saying that she was at last willing to suffer the career consequences of bucking the lobby.
Carter’s failure to obtain anything for Palestinians has been his cross to bear since he left office. He has acquitted that debt honorably. His statements on Palestinian conditions and the Palestinian future are noble, and earned his latter-day excommunication from the Democratic Party. The progressive base of the party and its young heroes are sure to honor him.