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Decision Points: insight into the US-Israel relationship

As the world hunkers down with the coronavirus pandemic and we learn to live in the new abnormal, technology has been a source of consolation. People are looking for content while they are at home, leading to an explosion in podcasts.

I started my own podcast series last fall, “Decision Points,” looking to give listeners deeper insight into the US-Israel relationship. I thought it would be interesting to have a range of conversations with people who either wrote about dramatic decisions in the history of US-Israel relations or were in the room themselves.

In the process, I gleaned new anecdotes that gave me a fuller understanding of key players who made crucial decisions at critical junctures. As someone who spent the first 13 years of my career in journalism (executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, diplomatic correspondent of Ha’aretz and contributing editor of US News and World Report), I saw the idea of hosting a podcast as being novel, but also saw it as a return to my interviewing roots.

After years as a journalist, I started a podcast series last fall. Here are a few things I've learned.

David Makovsky

Being in the think-tank world for the last 20 years, including a stint in government, one always looks for the underlying forces behind key policy shifts. Distilling ideas into a 30-minute interview, however, is useful in reminding people that decisions are made by leaders who are influenced both by their own experiences and by how they viewed the deeper issues at play.

The experiences of key individuals can reinforce or challenge their assumptions and shape their worldview and policy choices. Taken together, hearing participants’ personal anecdotes in their own voice, one senses how dramatic encounters give us a better window into the mind of key figures and their contributions to critical moments in history.

The centrality of leadership is the overarching lesson that looms large for me, both in hosting this podcast and in writing a new book with Dennis Ross “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.” Here are just a few of many examples that impacted me while I was hosting a podcast.

Balfour’s Backchannel

The beginning of the US-Israel relationship predated the establishment of the State. The British did not want to make the historic move of issuing the Balfour Declaration — the first world power to recognize that the Jewish people have a right to a homeland — in 1917 without the explicit blessing of the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson. The close US-Anglo relationship and a recognition that the US would be key if the British were to win World War I were important factors. (After all, Wilson ran his 1916 reelection campaign on keeping the US out of war.)

The British had a variety of reasons to support Balfour, some geopolitical and some due to a sense of religious restoration of Jews to the Holy Land. The British also believed American Jews would support the Declaration and could be key in ensuring that the US would be fully committed to the war effort.

Louis Brandeis had been named by Wilson to the US Supreme Court a year earlier. British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour came to Washington just after the US formally declared war on Germany and entered World War I in April 1917. Balfour had come from a rough White House meeting with Wilson, as the latter did not look favorably on the idea of Britain and France carving up the Middle East behind closed doors. Balfour thought the US and Britain should administer Palestine together, but Wilson demurred.

During that visit in Washington, Balfour decided to meet with Brandeis. Both expressed their support for Zionism. Brandeis told Balfour the key was first seeking American support for Zionism and avoiding focus on who would run the mandate at this stage, which would appeal to Wilson’s commitment to self-determination, as outlined in his Fourteen Points speech.

Brandeis assured Balfour he would meet Wilson and did so within days in early May 1917. Michael Oren, author of “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present” and former Israeli Ambassador to the US, illuminated the meeting between Balfour and Brandeis on the first episode of podcast: “Brandeis says to Balfour, ‘don’t worry, I got it.’ Indeed, Brandeis met with Wilson shortly thereafter and Wilson conveys private support for what later becomes the Balfour Declaration.

Brandeis’s advice to Wilson ran against his foreign policy advisors, including those who worried about the impact on the US-Turkish relationship. Leading Zionist Chaim Weizmann would later publicly credit Brandeis for his key role.

When the President was subsequently asked by Rabbi Stephen Wise why he supported the Balfour Declaration, Wilson famously responded as he alluded to his father who was a Presbyterian minister. He declared, “To think that I, the son of the manse (parsonage), would have the opportunity of returning the Jewish people to its Holy Land.”

Truman’s Commitment to Weizmann

A famous story in US-Israel relations is that on March 13, 1948, Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish former business partner and friend of President Harry Truman, went to the White House and convinced Truman to meet with the leader of Zionism, Weizmann. While Truman was exasperated by the lobbying on all sides regarding diplomatic recognition of an incipient state, Jacobson convinced him to put his reticence aside and see Weizmann.

As the story goes, Jacobson looked at a bust of Andrew Jackson, who was a hero to Truman, and made an analogy with his deep admiration of Weizmann. At their meeting on March 18, Weizmann made clear his deep concern that the US was retreating from its November 1947 public commitment at the UN to partition the land into Jewish and Arab states amidst violence on the ground.

Ronald Radosh, co-author of ‘A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel,” shared an anecdote on the podcast that he’d learned a story after his book was published.

Radosh retold the incident as shared with him: “I was a young kid, 12 or 13, and my mother was assigned to help Chaim Weizmann, who was practically blind, [and] read to him and help him get around in DC. My mother assigned me the job after school to go to the hotel and read the newspapers to Chaim Weizmann…And one day, he [the son] came to the hotel on time, Weizmann wasn’t there and he waited and waited. Finally, Weizmann bursts into the hotel room with a giant smile on his face…. He said ‘Yes, sonny, I have to tell you something but don’t tell anyone else: Truman just told me he’s going to recognize a Jewish state.”

This anecdote demonstrates that Weizmann was thrilled by Truman’s reiteration of his commitment to partition and believed an impasse has been broken with the President’s declaration.

Natan Sharansky Finds Strength in an Army of Students and Housewives

It is known the Soviet Jewry movement counted on activists from around the globe to open the gates of the Soviet Union, enabling Jews to emigrate in massive numbers and strengthen Israel. In an interview on Decision Points, leader of the Soviet Jewry movement, Natan Sharansky, explained how he was buoyed by the knowledge that so many stood behind him.

Sharansky was being held in a KGB prison and was shown ‘evidence’ to be used against him in his 1978 trial. Sharansky savored the picture of his wife, Avital, and those joining a demonstration on his behalf at the Soviet embassy in London. He insisted that KGB Colonel Viktor Volodin, who headed the interrogation, keep rewinding the tape. Finally, Volodin screamed. “That’s enough. What do you think — that your fate is in the hands of those people and not ours? They’re nothing more than students and housewives.”

Sharansky explained in the podcast interview:

“I think this KGB Colonel gave the great definition to our movement. The army of students of housewives defeated the KGB….Then I travelled all over the world to thank students and housewives. They’re this unbelievable army of Jewish people which defeated the most powerful dictatorship in the world. As a result, the iron curtain fell, [the] Soviet Union fell apart, millions of Jews got their freedom, and all the world became a more free place. That’s the power of Jewish students and housewives.” (Indeed, Sharansky’s first stop was to thank the World Union of Jewish Students in a presentation in front of thousands in Jerusalem. I should add I was chairman of WUJS at the time.)

Tzipi Livni and an Intergenerational Reconciliation

Two characteristics have defined key direct descendants of the pre-state generation who fought with Israel’s militant Irgun underground before Israel was founded in 1948. First, many of them have been active in Israel’s public life and called ‘princes’ or ‘princesses.’

Second, some of them have questioned the ideological commitment of their parents who opposed partition with the Palestinians. They include Dan Meridor, Ehud Olmert, Arye Naor and Tzipi Livni. All started their careers in the Likud party or its precursor, Herut, that derived from the Irgun, but evolved over time into political moderates who believed Israel must compromise with the Palestinians.

Livni became one of the most prominent Israelis in the peace camp. However, her parents came from a different background. Her father, Eitan Livni, was the chief operational figure targeting British interests within the Irgun when it was headed by Menachem Begin. (Eitan Livni’s love for the Irgun was so great that he left instructions to have the Irgun emblem on his tombstone.) Livni’s mother, Sarah, spent time in British prison during the underground period.

Livni has been reticent to talk about how her mother was related to her political evolution. However, during an episode of Decision Points, she opened up in a very personal and dramatic way. She recalled this statement of her mother after she heard her daughter give an interview:

“Now, my mother was a great warrior in the Irgun and she believed in greater Israel. Until the age of 80, she used to go to contribute to Hebron. One day, after one my interviews, I was speaking about a Palestinian state as part of the solution and she called me and she said ‘Tzipi, I listened to what you say, I hear you. It hurts me, but I see young Israelis leaving for America and we didn’t fight to establish a state just for us, the old guys. So we did our part, now it’s your decision’.”

David Petraeus’ Interlocutor

Shortly after the recent US killing of Iranian regional mastermind Qassem Soleimani, the former CIA director David Petraeus’ appeared for an interview on Decision Points. He was reminded of the Iranian’s assertion of control in the Mideast years earlier. In March 2008, Petraeus was America’s top general in Iraq. He remembered a message he received from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani:

“Well, it was a bit of a wake-up call as to who really had the power in Iran over some key policies. The message that came to me via the President of Iraq, who had just met with Qasem Soleimani, inside Iran, is ‘Gen. Petraeus, you should know that I, Qasem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran when it comes to Iraq and also Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan’ (and now you can add Yemen as well.)

“The point of his message was: quit fooling around with those diplomats. If you want to deal with somebody in Iran, you should deal with me. Needless to say, we were not going to do that. When the President of Iraq asked me for my reply, I told him essentially to tell Qasem Soleimani to pound sand.”

Key moments can make a difference in shaping critical decisions. Leadership requires political courage like Truman exhibited in recognizing Israel, or in Balfour’s perseverance when facing White House opposition, or in Livni breaking from the path of her parents. Physical and mental courage was exhibited by Sharansky during his interrogation with the KGB.

The lesson is clear: by dint of experience and exercise of judgment, people shape history and nothing is predetermined. I learned so much from the first season of hosting a podcast, and looking forward to a second season. Stay tuned.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the host of the Podcast “Decision Points: The US-Israel Relationship.” He is the co-author with Dennis Ross of the recent book “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.”


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