Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Special Interview Solon Says It is ‘fundamentally Wrong’ to Press Israel on the PLO

September 21, 1979
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Before he saw the Holy Land, Maine’s junior U.S. Senator, Republican William S. Cohen, was avidly pro-Israel in heart and mind. Now that he’s been there, his conviction that the United States must stand firmly with Israel in the face of the developing diplomatic and propaganda storms against her is as rock-ribbed as his native state is generally described.

“I was always a strong supporter of Israel,” Cohen said after his return from an eight-day visit to Israel. “My support is even stronger now. To consider Israel without seeing it is an abstraction. One cannot appreciate the conditions under which Israel and the Israelis exist, survive, and excel with pride and in peace.”

“Heavy overtones of tension are evident wherever you go,” he said in an interview in his Capitol office. “Israel lives under the hair-trigger of extinction.” Then, noting that Israel is “vulnerable to attacks” within three to five minutes flying time, Cohen emphasized Israel’s defense requirements, militarily and territorially. “The Golan Heights,” he stressed at one point, “are of strategic importance to Israel’s survival.”

Speaking of the relationship of Palestinian Arabs and Israelis, Cohen observed “not all the Arabs by any stretch of the imagination are supporters of (Palestine Liberation Organization chief) Yasir Arafat. There are some Palestinians who want to live peacefully with Israelis. Within Israel, there are philosophical differences about the best approaches for a settlement but there is a genuine interest in accommodation.”

With a statesman’s vision of the diplomatic and propaganda offensive organized against Israel to legitimize the PLO, Cohen said; “It is fundamentally wrong for the United States or anyone else to insist or suggest Israel negotiate with the PLO without conditions. Some ask Israel to accept political promises in exchange for whatever marginal safety her land provides. I believe Israel wants a resolution of the issue but it is not sensible to have Israel negotiate with those calling for her extinction.”


“The gathering of Jews from all over the world now living in Israel was not for the purpose of inviting another Holocaust,” he continued. Pointing to the pro-PLO offensive within America and elsewhere, Cohen spoke out against allowing “the rhetoric to escalate into reality towards demanding Israel yield concessions to those who would destroy her. This is an absurd demand to be made on the Israelis and one not to be given any consideration. Israel as a state has the right to exist in peace and should not, and I hope would not, make any concessions about its land or return to the old borders.”

Speaking of Israel’s “vulnerability” within its pre-1967 boundaries, Cohen painted out three million Israelis live in a “small space” surrounded by 100 million Arabs. “How quickly that territory can be engulfed in war,” he said. “We must constantly remember the first war Israel loses will be the last one. And it is the only nation that has been attacked and won and then immediately called upon to make concessions.”

“Our interests don’t end at any border,” he went on. “Our vital interests ought to be attached to the deeply seated belief we support those countries with fundamental beliefs like ours. Our policy should not be adjusted on oil in pipelines. If we do, our future as a world power is not a bright one.”

Cohen said he suggested while in Israel that the U.S. ought to move its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “I think Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. For all practical purposes, Tel Aviv is a great city but it is not the historic center of Israel.”


Cohen said he “detested” the “definite shift by this Administration to a more pro-Palestinian position.” He mentioned specifically President Carter’s remark equating the Palestinian Arab campaign to the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the effects of that on Black Americans. “We should speak out against such comparison which is lacking in merit and substance. To equate the civil rights movement and Black Americans with the Palestinian Arabs led by the PLO is certainly a discredit to Martin Luther King Jr. whose efforts for social change was through non-violent action.”

Speaking of Israel and other democracies, Cohen asked rhetorically: “Do we adjust our ethics to what is expedient at the time? Our constituents say America must look at our interests first. That’s true. But these have to be defined. Having a strong Israel as an ally is in our national interest. Israel is a strategic necessity to the U.S.

“Too many people see Israel as a burden rather than a strong ally in a volatile region which has obvious economic importance to us. The nation that Israel is a burden is perpetrated by daily news accounts of so-called Israeli intransigence, inflexibility, pursuit of policies inconsistent with peace–or intransigence–that will lead to disruption of oil supplies. The cumulative effect is that Israel is becoming a burden to the U.S.”

He stressed that America must redefine for what it stands. “What are our interests? Shifting temporary alliances or one of long-standing? Do we view democracies throughout the world as own friends or only our immediate economic interests? If we sacrifice our ideological precepts on the altar of short-term economic interests we would inflict a wound on our national soul and statehood from which we would not recover.”

Cohen, the son of a Jewish father, a baker in Bangor, Maine, and an Irish Protestant mother, is a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Church. Now only 39 years old, with a wealth of political experience as Mayor in Bangor where he was born and three terms as a member of Congress, Cohen is a lawyer by profession and a poet by avocation He speaks with directness and assesses circumstances in specific terms. Educated in Maine and steeped in New England traditions, Cohen demonstrates a breadth of understanding that would indicate a long political career for him.

Recommended from JTA