Back-Door Diplomacy

Broken Covenant: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis Between the U.S. and Israel.
by Moshe Arens.
Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $25.00.

By now, the fact that George Bush came into office determined to cut Israel down to size, both figuratively and literally, is reasonably well-known. So, too, is the fact that neither he nor his Secretary of State, James Baker, was overly scrupulous in the means employed to accomplish this goal. What is far from well-known, however, is that the Bush administration worked closely with the opposition Israeli Labor party to undercut Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. This startling revelation is at the heart of Broken Covenant, Moshe Arens’s remarkably candid book.

As Foreign Minister in Israel’s coalition National Unity government, the Lithuanian-born, MIT-educated Arens was a key participant in the drama he describes. Among other things, he was responsible for Israel’s May 1989 peace initiative, which called for democratic elections in the occupied territories as a first step toward creating limited autonomy for the Palestinians. Arens pushed hard for this initiative because he believed that—with the intifada raging—the status quo in the territories was incompatible with “the norms and standards by which Israeli society lives,” and because he feared that the new Bush administration might endorse an international conference that would impose harsh sanctions on Israel. It was the latter consideration, according to Arens, that led a reluctant Shamir to embrace the elections plan.

Arens expected he would be in charge of the diplomatic negotiations stemming from the initiative. To his consternation, he discovered a “web of surreptitious contacts” whose purpose was to secure agreements not between the Israeli government and the Arab states but between the Labor party and the Arabs. Such back-channel arrangements gave Baker the opportunity to present take-it-or-leave-it proposals to Shamir that had been coordinated with Labor in advance. Labor members of the cabinet could then threaten to bring down the government if Shamir refused to go along.

At first, Arens suspected that Shimon Peres, then serving as Finance Minister, was responsible for these intrigues, so he asked then-Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, Peres’s Labor colleague and perennial rival, to rein him in. It soon came to light, however, that Rabin himself was deeply involved in the furtive talks:

Rabin had not only entered into discussions with Baker, but had entered into a secret agreement with him about the composition of the Palestinian delegation, even picking by name the Palestinians he thought should serve on it, making as sure as he could that the real nature of his visit to Washington was not revealed to Shamir or me.

Despite all this, Arens did not want to see the National Unity government dissolved. Following the wisdom of Lyndon Johnson, he felt it was better to have the opposition “inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.” Shamir was not persuaded. Believing it was better for Israel to address the world “in one voice, not two,” he fired Peres, thereby provoking the resignation of all the Labor ministers and the fall of his own government. After a good deal of unsavory bargaining (described by Arens in hilarious, eye-popping detail) Shamir succeeded in forming a new, Likud-based government.



Given the deep differences between this new government and the Bush administration over how Middle East diplomacy should proceed, relations soon deteriorated sharply. Even after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and throughout the Gulf war, friction between the United States and Israel remained very intense. Arens recounts in riveting detail how, as Iraqi Scud missiles rained on Tel Aviv, the Bush administration continued putting off his increasingly urgent requests to work out a “deconflicting” mechanism that would enable Israeli warplanes to hunt for Scud launch sites in Iraq without being shot down by, or themselves forced to shoot down, friendly American jets. In the end, the war came to a close without Israel firing a shot.

After Iraq’s defeat, things reached a low ebb when the United States launched a diplomatic offensive with the apparent aim of toppling the Likud government, as a first step in an ambitious plan of settling the Israeli-Arab conflict once and for all:

The Bush administration decided to put the screws to Israel: to deny us the military aid that had been legislated, and to accuse us of illegally selling U.S. technology—poison arrows fired at Israel and directed, first and foremost, against the Likud government to show the Israeli public that no improvement should be expected in the U.S.-Israeli relationship as long as the Likud was in power.

Ultimately, Arens believes, it was this prolonged and embittered confrontation with the Bush administration that convinced Israeli voters it was time to bring Labor back—just what Baker and Bush had been hoping for all along.

Arens’s description of the inner workings of the oxymoronically named National Unity government casts a disturbing light on Israeli politics, which—at least in this account—are beset with a degree of ill will, suspicion, and rancor that cannot bode well for the future. Certainly Bush and Baker found the divisions and partisanship within Israel to be a vulnerability they could easily exploit.

If Arens’s account is reliable, moreover, it will require a new generation to heal the deep fissures within Israel’s body politic. Leaders like Rabin and Peres, he suggests, with their roots in the labor movement, the kibbutzim, the Histadrut federation, and the prestate Palmach defense force, consider themselves the “real” Israel, and will be forever unwilling to defer, in matters vital to Israel’s security, to non-Laborites like Shamir and Arens, even if the latter happen to enjoy a mandate from the electorate. “I had no doubt,” says Arens,

that [Rabin’s] arrogance stemmed from deep-seated animosities between the rival pre-state underground organizations—the Haganah and the Irgun Zvai Leumi—culminating in Ben-Gurion’s order to fire on the Altalena, the Irgun ship that had brought arms and volunteers to Israel’s shores in July 1948. I had always suspected that, deep down, Rabin was convinced that anybody who did not participate in this ambush should not be counted among the contributors to Israel’s defense.



Though Arens is outraged by what he regards as Labor’s “subversive” behavior, he is even more outraged by the role of the Bush administration in encouraging Labor’s behavior. Is his anger justified? Some Americans, after all, are on record as believing that the Israeli tail has for too long been wagging the American dog, with Israel pocketing billions in American aid while blithely disregarding American policy prescriptions. Those who subscribe to this point of view will hardly share Arens’s fury; the Bush administration, they would argue, was right to assert itself and bring Jerusalem to heel.

Even some committed supporters of Israel within the American Jewish community were, at the time, inclined to praise the Bush administration for its policy of “tough love.” For them, Bush’s activist, results-oriented pursuit of negotiations with the PLO may strike a more responsive chord than Arens’s still-unfashionable conviction that “Israel’s security require [s] Israeli control over judea and Samaria. . . .”

Yet even Israel’s sternest critics, not to mention its friends, ought to be deeply troubled by Arens’s revelations. To push Israel into making concessions, the Bush administration conducted its diplomacy not with Israel’s official representatives but with the leaders of the opposition Labor party in a series of surreptitious meetings. As Broken Covenant shows all too clearly, such interference in the internal affairs of an ally is a betrayal of what democratic statecraft is supposedly about: respect for the sovereignty of an allied country (even when that ally is small, weak, and cantankerous); support for democratic procedures (even when they produce “intransigent” governments); and a prudent recognition that sometimes the effort to make things better, as Israel’s Labor government belatedly appears to be discovering, only makes them worse.

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