It is said that the Jewish people never forget a friend and a benefactor. The fact that the president of Israel did not represent the State of Israel at the ceremonies conducted in Washington on the occasion of the death of President Ronald Reagan is an unfortunate exception. Israel never had a better friend in the White House than Ronald Reagan. A true friend and an admirer.
I had occasion to get to know him well during the year I spent in Washington as Israel's ambassador during Reagan's first term in office. It was the year of the war in Lebanon and the U.S. and Israel had some serious differences of opinion on matters related to the military operation there. But through it all Reagan's friendship for Israel shone through. When I arrived in Washington, an aeronautical engineer without any diplomatic experience, I was under the impression that a nation's policy was determined solely by its interests, personal relations playing no part in the decision making. I found out differently during my stay in Washington. Not that the national interest was not of primary importance, yet considerable weight was being given to feeling and sentiment and personal relations. They were part of the basis on which the determination of national interest was established. With Reagan, I had the clear impression that he admired Israel and Israelis and that his friendship for Israel helped to overcome misunderstandings and even differences of opinion. He had an understanding for the problems that Israel was facing and he had great sympathy for our travails.
Menachem Begin came to Washington. "Call me Ron," the president said. The Israeli prime minister found it difficult to reciprocate Reagan's "Menachem" with "Ron," and insisted on addressing Reagan as "Mr. President." Sitting in the Oval Office, Reagan pulled out a deck of file cards from his breast pocket. Before starting to read the notes on the cards, he said somewhat shamefacedly: "This is better than coming home at night and remembering that there were some things I forgot to tell you, or worse yet, that I said some things I should not have said." After Reagan finished reading from his cards, Begin launched into a long, extemporaneous speech on the problems facing Israel at the moment while Reagan listened patiently and sympathetically.
At lunch Reagan recalled that during World War II, while he was serving in a U.S. Army film unit, he came across some films taken of the death camps in Europe. "I decided to take them home and keep them, because I thought the day might come when some people would say that the Holocaust never happened," Reagan told us, and you could tell the Holocaust had left an indelible impression on him.
During Reagan's presidency, U.S.-Israeli relations reached a level of friendship and alliance unprecedented in previous years. His secretaries of state, Alexander Hague and George Shultz, were the first to change the traditional attitude to Israel in the halls of the State Department.
More than 10 years have past since Reagan left the White House, after serving for two terms. With some historical perspective, he is at the present time being acclaimed as one of America's great presidents. He is credited with ending the Cold War. The "evil empire" is no more. His instincts regarding many of the difficult problems facing America at the time have turned out to be right.
The Soviet Union was an evil empire, and the nuclear balance that had been established between the two superpowers, "mutual assured destruction," could not be counted on indefinitely to assure the peace of the world. That gave rise to the American Star Wars project, which contributed greatly to the recognition by Soviet leaders that they were unable to keep up in the arms race with the United States, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. He felt that taxes in the U.S. were too high and needed to be lowered to bring about growth in the economy. And he turned out to be right.
On Israel, as well, his instincts were right. He admired Israel for its courage and its tenacity and its ability to stand up to great odds. He saw Israel as an ally of the United States. Israelis will always remember him as the greatest of friends. When it comes to friendship for Israel, all occupants of the White House can be measured by the standard he set.
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