While working on documents at the Carter Center, a researcher from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center came across a declassified action memorandum from William Quandt, Middle East specialist on the National Security Council, to his boss, Zbigniew Brzezinski. (Click here for the document in full.) Dated May 18, 1977, it was written just one day after Begin's breakthrough victory over Labor, the first time any other party had beaten Labor since the State of Israel had been founded 29 years earlier.
The memo makes for deliciously instructive reading. Count the mistakes in Quandt's opening analysis:
Much of our strategy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict has been predicated on the assumption that a strong and moderate Israeli government would at some point be able to make difficult decisions on territory and on the Palestinians. Now we face the prospect of a very weak coalition, a prolonged period of uncertainty, and an Israeli leadership which may be significantly more assertive in its policies concerning the West Bank, Palestinians, settlements, and nuclear weapons.
The Arabs will no doubt read the Israeli election results as signifying an end to the chance of getting to Geneva this year, and possibly the end of any hope for a political settlement, and we may see them begin to take out insurance by patching up quarrels with the Soviets, digging in their heels on peace terms, and acting more belligerently on oil prices.
In fact, Begin's government made the difficult decisions Labor had not taken, his coalition endured, the Egyptians became more forthcoming, their rift from the Soviets deepened, and oil prices were not affected (until the fall of the shah shot them up).
The rest of the memo consists mainly of five bullet points in which Quandt outlines tactics by which to weaken Begin, with this passage the key to the approach:
Begin should be allowed to make his own mistakes. If he takes positions in his talks with us that preclude the continuation of our peace initiative, we should not hesitate to explain what has happened. Israelis can then draw their own conclusions, and perhaps the next election in 1978 or 1979 will produce different results.
In fact, Begin won reelection in June 1981 and his successors went on to dominate Israeli politics for 27 out of the next 33 years. But by 1981, of course, American voters had thrown Jimmy Carter out of office, meaning that Brzezinski no longer needed Quandt's sage advice.
(1) Asked to comment on these documents, the director-general of the Begin Heritage Center, Herzl Makov, noted their relevance to current U.S.-Israel relations: "It's interesting to see history repeat itself. Just like now, we see that the Carter administration made every mistake possible about the political situation in Israel, I think that in 30 years, studies will show that the Obama administration made the same mistakes. History will tell which administration was worse for Israel."
(2) In this memo, Quandt – who has a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to become president of the Middle East Studies Association as well as the Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. professor of politics at the University of Virginia – neatly encapsulates the incompetence of academically trained Middle East specialists. (May 24, 2010)