Gerald Ford was considered a solid friend of Israel throughout his long Congressional career. A popular speaker at Jewish organizational functions, he never hesitated to support all manner of financial and military aid to Israel and was one of the first elected officials to urge that the U.S. recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
That unabashed enthusiasm underwent a speedy metamorphosis, however, once Ford became president in August 1974. Just a week after he assumed the presidency, Ford was asked at a press conference about his stance on Jerusalem. “That particular proposal,” he replied with no discernible sheepishness, “ought to stand aside.”
(Ford's transformation from something of a pro-Israel cheerleader to more of an even-handed interlocutor should serve as a cautionary tale for those inclined to put much stock in the past rhetoric, even the past actions, of politicians who run for president pledging to remain single-mindedly devoted to Israel. It’s one thing for a congressman to maintain an unblemished record of support for Israel and quite another for a president, whose concerns encompass a complex range of strategic issues and fragile alliances.)
By his own admission Ford was inordinately influenced by Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state and national security adviser he inherited from Richard Nixon. Ford had concentrated on domestic issues during his career in the House, and as a result lacked both experience and self-confidence in the realm of foreign policy, which of course made him especially susceptible to Kissinger's sway.
Kissinger had been a respected foreign-policy scholar before Richard Nixon brought him to Washington; Ford had a layman’s grasp of history and none of Kissinger's sophisticated, first-hand experience with diplomacy.
“It would be hard for me to overstate the admiration and affection I had for Henry,” Ford wrote in his memoirs. “Our personalities meshed. I respected his expertise in foreign policy, and he respected my judgment in domestic politics.”
By retaining Nixon's foreign policy czar, Ford tied himself to Nixon’s foreign policy. Detente with the Soviet Union and an easing of hostilities with China were Nixon’s major legacies, but plenty of unfinished business remained – particularly in the Middle East, where, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, the U.S. faced growing Arab hostility and an Israeli government in upheaval.
Hoping to restore at least a semblance of order on the ground, Kissinger spent weeks in late 1973 working out interim disengagement agreements among Egypt, Syria, and Israel. But negotiations over more permanent arrangements would take months, and when the accords where finally hammered out they were scheduled to take effect in stages, giving the parties involved – specifically Israel, which had agreed to make painful territorial concessions – enough time for second thoughts.
Meanwhile, the golden image Israel had long enjoyed in the U.S. was showing signs of tarnish. The mainstream media were increasingly portraying Israel not as a virtuous outpost of democracy threatened by its rapacious enemies but as an intransigent colossus lording it over its helpless neighbors, while arguments for supporting Israel began to lose resonance with the man in the street as the Arab oil embargo and its deleterious effect on the nation’s economy steadily diminished his buying power.
Also, admiration for Israel's military prowess had faded in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, not just in the nation at large but among America's own soldier class. “The Israelis,” wrote Steven Spiegel in The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, his well-regarded study in Middle East diplomacy, “even suffered in the Pentagon, where their image as effective fighters had been tarnished by their early war losses; some officers resented the loss of equipment sent to Israel during the emergency.”
Israel's plummeting prestige loosed some tongues that might otherwise have remained silent. Remarks made at Duke University in October 1974 by the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Gen. George Brown, sent shockwaves through the American Jewish community.
In a rambling response to a question about whether he thought the U.S. might one day have to intervene militarily in the Middle East, Brown said he hoped not:
but you can conjure up the situation where there is another oil embargo and people in this country are not only inconvenienced and uncomfortable, but suffer and they get tough-minded enough to set down the Jewish influence in this country and break that lobby. It's so strong you wouldn't believe now…They own, you know, the banks in this country, the newspapers…You just look at where the Jewish money is in this country.
The administration disavowed Brown, but judging from calls to radio talk shows, letters to newspapers, and telegrams to the White House, his remarks reflected the sentiments of a significant number of Americans. Whether the growing impatience with Israel had any influence on Kissinger is a matter of speculation, but what is certain is that the secretary of state felt free to employ imagery suggesting an intransigent Israel whenever negotiations reached an impasse.
At one point during a touchy stretch of the discussions, Kissinger delivered an especially scathing diatribe to Israel's negotiating team, fuming:
Such bargaining is not dignified for an American secretary of state. I am wandering around here like a rug merchant in order to bargain over 100 to 200 meters! Like a peddler in the market! I'm trying to save you, and you think you are doing me a favor when you are kind enough to give me a few more meters.
The last straw for Kissinger came in March 1975, as the date approached for Israel to surrender more of the Sinai as stipulated in the third and final accord signed with Egypt. A disagreement arose over how far Israel was obligated to pull back, and Kissinger peevishly warned the Israelis that he foresaw “pressure building up to force you back to the 1967 borders.”
At that point the Ford administration announced “a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relationship with Israel.” Kissinger left the Middle East in a dark mood, referring to Yitzhak Rabin as a “small man” and calling the Israeli government’s stance “lunacy.”
As part of the “reassessment,” the White House froze all scheduled arms deliveries to Israel, and starker measures were hinted at. Seventy-six U.S. senators signed a public letter demanding the immediate resumption of aid to Israel. An embarrassed Kissinger summoned Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz for a dressing-down.
“This letter will kill you!” Kissinger shouted at Dinitz. “It will increase anti-Semitism! It will cause people to charge that Jews control Congress!”
In the end, Rabin, after a three-month standoff, agreed to withdraw Israeli forces from some disputed mountain passes and Ford and Kissinger resumed aid to Israel. Ford never did develop a warm relationship with Rabin, but by the time the president left office, in January 1977, the gloomy period of the oil embargo and Israel's declining popularity was receding into history.
Israel’s image had been immeasurably boosted by the dramatic July 4, 1976 rescue of more than a hundred Jewish and Israeli hostages held in Uganda by Palestinian and German terrorists – a military action that simultaneously restored the IDF’s old luster and reminded a generation of Americans shell-shocked by Vietnam that sometimes military force is the only viable option.
As for Kissinger, his policy of detente had failed to check Soviet aggression, and the fall of South Vietnam made a mockery of one of his most vaunted diplomatic “successes.” In November 1975, Ford stripped him of his position as national security adviser, appointing Brent Scowcroft, a Kissinger protégé, to fill the position. Kissinger remained on as secretary of state, but his power and prestige were never the same.
The irony of Gerald Ford’s brief term as president is that the breath of fresh air he brought to an Oval Office enveloped in the fumes of corruption failed to blow away the stale vestiges of Kissingerian Realpolitik, in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It was left to Jimmy Carter, in his own tentative and largely misguided manner, and then to Ronald Reagan, with his clear-eyed view of American virtue and Soviet villainy, to set a new course for American foreign policy in the closing years of the 20th century.