Relations with the United States
In 1980, ronald reagan was elected president of the United States. relations between the Begin and reagan administrations were complex. Israel and the United States continued to clash over divergent interpretations of the regional situation, the peace process, and Israel’s security needs.
Israel struck at the Iraqi reactor and at PLO bases in Beirut during summer 1981 and took action on other issues when it believed that its national interest was at stake even though it expected U.S. opposition on these issues.
There were disputes about settlements and Israel’s concern about a perceived pro-Saudi tendency in U.S. policy, manifest in part by arms supplied to Saudi Arabia (including F-15 enhancements and Airborne Warning and Control System [AWACS] aircraft).
Israeli anxiety was heightened when the reagan administration seemed to suggest that a peace plan put forward in August 1981 by Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia and opposed by Israel had some merit. The U.S. administration’s stand lent credence to the Israeli perspective of a tilt toward Saudi Arabia in U.S. policy.
In an effort to mitigate the effects of the AWACS sale, reagan sought to reassure Israel that the United States remained committed to helping Israel retain its military and technological advantages. On november 30, the United States and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation in which the two countries recognized the need to enhance strategic cooperation.
The agreement called for cooperation in response to Soviet or Soviet-controlled threats and was not directed against any Middle Eastern state or group of states. Bilateral working groups were to negotiate the details of implementation. For the Begin government, the agreement constituted an important milestone, suggesting improved relations with the United States. however, the thaw in relations was short lived.
A month later, the government of Israel, in keeping with its campaign themes, decided to alter the status of the Golan heights. On a number of occasions, Begin and other spokesmen for Likud had made clear that Israel was prepared to negotiate with Syria but would not agree to withdraw (“come down”) from the Golan heights or to remove any settlement from it.
On December 14, the government presented to the Knesset the Golan heights Law, whose operative clause applied the law, jurisdiction, and administration of Israel to the area. The rationales were many but centered on historical and security factors and on the refusal of Syria to recognize Israel’s existence and to negotiate with Israel for peace.
The Knesset subsequently endorsed the government’s proposal, the government gaining some support from the ranks of the Labor opposition. U.S. spokesmen stressed that the United States had been given no advance warning and opposed the decision to change the status of the Golan through unilateral action.
Statements of displeasure and condemnation were accompanied by U.S. support for a Un Security Council resolution of condemnation and by U.S. suspension of the Agreement of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation.
Israel was stunned by the extent of the U.S. response, and Israel’s strongly negative reaction included Begin’s castigation of the U.S. ambassador.