There are many anniversaries that mark significant events. When the anniversary is political it is often accompanied with announcements. There is more often historical revision as well as irony.
Therefore, it is with an extreme sense of irony that the U.S. and Israel have entered into a period being referred to as re-evaluation and reassessment. It is deja vu. The last time this word was used to describe a period of tension between the two nations it also was in the month of March, and the year was 1975. Thus exactly forty years ago this month, the U.S. president uttered fateful words, politicians and pundits on both sides became engaged in a war of willpower.
In March 1975, less than two years after the Yom Kippur War, then secretary of state Henry Kissinger successfully brokered a disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt in Sinai, followed by a successful agreement between Syria and Israel, and returned to Egypt and Israel, attempting to broker a second Sinai disengagement through ‘shuttle diplomacy’. Diplomacy very much dependent upon the personalities of those leaders involved.
There were differences however that Secretary Kissinger encountered in his second attempt. One significant difference was that he was negotiating on behalf of a new American president to a new Israeli prime minister. The negotiations did not go well. There was a particular difficult meeting in Jerusalem and one before Kissinger left by plane in which he and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin both became so agitated that they resorted to shouting at each other.
In the aftermath of this exchange, President Ford wrote Rabin an angry letter, placing blame for the diplomatic breakdown squarely on Israel. It was in this letter, that the U.S. took the extraordinary step to initiate a review of U.S.-Israeli relations. While the tone of the letter from the American president was strong, “I wish to express my profound disappointment over Israel’s attitude during the course of the negotiations,” Ford went further than any previous American executive, “I have given instructions for a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relations with Israel, with the aim of ensuring that our overall American interests are protected.” A war of wills now began between the three men. Each trying to influence the other. This was an important letter because it allowed for the first time in their relationship, the U.S. and Israel to lay bare their stark differences on the concept of security, a concept Israel places within its definition of national security, defined by defensible borders.
In the ebook Limits of Influence: Ford, Rabin, Kissinger and the Reassessment period of 1975, this author shows that not only does the reassessment period of 2015 have its roots in March, 1975, but the fundamental differences over both definitions of national security and the principle of negotiating with Israel’s neighbors have never been one of shared agreement between the United States and Israel.
As the new reassessment period unfolds, there may be further similarities involving Congressional and Israeli Cabinet maneuvers, but one lesson from March, 1975 is that the rift between the two nations took longer to heal than the short period of actual reevaluation. Both the U.S. and Israeli leadership should be prepared for the same.