Analysis from Israel

In yesterday’s post, I described how newly declassified documents from the Vietnam War reveal the enormous strategic impact that America’s perceived credibility as an ally (or lack thereof) has on the Middle East. But the documents also teach another important lesson about the modern Middle East — the importance of Congress.

In 1973, the Yom Kippur War erupted even as the Vietnam War still raged. Thus Israel and South Vietnam wound up submitting very similar requests for military aid to Washington. As then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer noted in one internal discussion, “Many of the things [South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu] wants, Israel wants too. We have to make some decisions.”

Ultimately, those decisions heavily favored Israel: Jerusalem got most of what it wanted; Saigon did not. But that was not because either the Nixon administration or the subsequent Ford administration preferred Israel to South Vietnam. It was because Congress did.

In 1974, then-president Gerald Ford explained this bluntly to South Vietnam’s foreign minister, Vuong Van Bac. After pledging the administration’s full support, he qualified, “Our problem is not us, but on the Hill.”

Then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger echoed this in an internal discussion in 1975. Congress, he complained, had told him:

“You’ve got to give aid to Israel because they win their wars, but we can’t give aid to other countries that are losing their wars.” Well, on that goddamn theory it’s a wonder that the Soviets are not in Bonn already. On that theory the Nazis would have taken over the world.

Haaretz journalist Amir Oren summed the lesson up nicely:

Fortunately for Israel, Washington does not only consist of the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, but also Congress. Thanks to Israel’s power in Congress, it has fared better than other, smaller allies, like South Vietnam. In the absence of congressional support, they did not win the administration’s affection; this is why Saigon fell and Jerusalem hasn’t.

Unfortunately, it’s a lesson few Israeli prime ministers seem to have learned. Because Israel’s Knesset has virtually no power over foreign affairs, Israeli leaders often fail to understand the crucial role that congressional support, or opposition, plays in American foreign affairs. They therefore focus exclusively on good relations with the administration, while ignoring Congress entirely.

That would be a bad mistake for any country. But it’s a particularly egregious mistake for a country that has traditionally enjoyed far more support in Congress than it has from even the friendliest administration.

Yet it isn’t only Israeli leaders who could benefit from studying this lesson: the newly released documents also provide a crucial reminder for American voters. Americans, of course, do understand the role of Congress. Nevertheless, there is sometimes a tendency to think that since foreign policy is primarily in the president’s domain, congressional votes should focus on domestic concerns.

But, in fact, as these documents show, Congress plays a vital role in foreign policy as well. The lesson is clear: if voters want a pro-Israel foreign policy, they must keep electing pro-Israel congressmen.

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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