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Obama vs. Reagan, Netanyahu vs. Begin and Shamir

 Over at Tablet, Yair Rosenberg has a piece that challenges the "Obama is the worst president for Israel, ever" meme.

What’s notable is that he does not have to plumb the fraught Eisenhower years — he digs just as far back as Ronald Reagan, an icon of today’s Republican Party.

Under Reagan, the United States had withheld promised warplanes from Israel to punish it for destroying Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981 and voted to condemn the action in the United Nations Security Council. It had publicly criticized Israel’s July bombing of the PLO headquarters in Beirut and the ensuing civilian casualties. And it had suspended discussion of a memorandum of strategic cooperation after the Knesset voted to extend Israeli civil law to the occupied Golan Heights.

UPDATE: Chemi Shalev at Ha’aretz also plumbed this territory last December. I had forgotten some of the details Shalev resurfaces — for instance, that Reagan balked at visiting a concentration camp, even as he pressed ahread with his address at Bitburg, where members of the Waffen SS were buried. It’s a stunning read.

Rosenberg also takes on the "Netanyahu’s is most right wing Israeli government, ever" meme:

Despite pressure and eventually threats from President George H. W. Bush, [Yitzhak] Shamir doggedly continued settlement expansion and insisted that the United States finance such building with loan guarantees. Under Shamir, the Chicago Tribune noted, “The number of housing units under construction in the occupied territories reportedly more than quadrupled to 12,985 last year from 2,880 in 1990.” And for his perceived intransigence on peace initiatives, Shamir famously earned himself the nickname “Mr. No.”

One minor caveat: Setting up the demolition of the Netanyahu meme, Rosenberg quotes Naomi Chazan, and then segues into a contemplation of Menachem Begin and his diplomatic and settlement policies.

This is deceptive: Chazan, describing at Yale what she calls "the most right-wing government in Israel’s history," is referring to domestic policies, many of them having to do with free expression.

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She is, indeed, engaging in hyperbole — but it’s not fair to use Begin as the referent. While the current Knesset has indeed introduced and passed a number of laws appalling to civil libertarians, Israelis enjoy considerably greater freedoms than they did during the 1950s and part of the 1960s, when at least one opposition newsweekly was routinely shuttered and when many Israeli Arabs lived under curfew.

Begin, however, was a stickler for such freedoms, at least in the sense of not using the instruments of government to repress publication or public demonstrations. He also effectively put an end to torture in interrogations, at least during his term in office.

What is true of the Begin years is that he did little to dissuade followers from rhetoric and sometimes actions that had the effect of intimidating the expression of opposing views. But that is different from using government as a blunt instument.

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