from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Gates and Netanyahu

September 09, 2011

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While I’ve been out of the country a small tempest has, I see, developed about former Secretary of Defense Gates’s views of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Jeffrey Goldberg reported this:

Senior administration officials told me that Gates argued to the president directly that Netanyahu is not only ungrateful, but also endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank.

In Israel, where of course this is big news, critics of Netanyahu have blamed him for sparking such views from Gates. Even in the United States, it has been Netanyahu who is blamed for evoking such an attitude from Gates.

I beg to differ, for in my experience Secretary Gates had and expressed this exact view in 2007. As Vice President Cheney’s new memoir recounts in some detail, there was in the spring and summer of that year long consideration of what to do about the then recently discovered Syrian nuclear reactor. There were endless discussions between Israeli and U.S. officials, and meeting after meeting inside the U.S. government. I participated in most of them.

Vice President Cheney notes that he favored a U.S. bombing of the reactor, and was alone in this. That is my memory as well. I was alone in favoring an Israeli strike, for I thought it would be useful to restore some of the credibility they had lost in the Lebanon War of 2006. Secretaries Rice and Gates favored a diplomatic route, taking the Syrians first to the IAEA and then to the UN Security Council to demand that they take the reactor apart. Cheney believed, and I agreed, that this was folly: the Syrians could drag that out for years while they finished construction of  the reactor. When had the UN ever forced a rogue state to give up its nuclear program, Cheney asked.  Moreover, once the Syrians found out that we knew about the reactor our military options would be gone: for example, in Saddam Hussein style they could put a kindergarten or hospital at the site and prevent a strike--for once the reactor was "hot" a strike could create dangerous effects for many miles around.

In the end, the president was persuaded to try the diplomatic route and told then Prime Minister Olmert this. Olmert immediately responded that this would not work, and that if we would not bomb the reactor he would. He reminded the president that he had from the first said it had to be destroyed one way or another. President Bush was instantly and thereafter fine with that decision, ordering that nothing be said or done that might compromise Israel’s plans.

In our internal discussions Secretary Gates had been firmly in favor of the diplomatic option. The question of course arose in those discussions what we should do if Israel disagreed—as in the end it did. Secretary Gates was firm, as I recall him: Israel was ungrateful and its policies were at times risking our own interests. We needed to be tough as nails and tell them our interests came first and their action would threaten the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Fortunately his policy recommendations were not accepted by President Bush, who understood that Israeli action against the reactor would advance rather than harm U.S. interests.

This story is worth telling for only one reason: that somehow it is now being “explained” that the Gates view of Israel is new and has been provoked by recent Israeli actions and by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Not so. Secretary Gates expressed essentially similar views in the Olmert days. Then as now he was wrong, but back then there was a different president who could listen to his honest and candid advice on how to protect U.S. interests and how to handle Israel--and firmly reject it.

Secretary Gates presided over years of steadily improving U.S.-Israel military cooperation under both President Bush and President Obama.  He should get real credit for this, as should the officers who have served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the last decade, Gen. Myers, Gen. Pace, and Adm. Mullen, and as should above all the two presidents they served.  But his views about the Israelis being "ungrateful" are not new and should not, in fairness, be attributed to recent developments or blamed on Prime Minister Netanyahu.