Reflections on a 'Tortured Part of the World'

Though he spent only 18 months as U.S. ambassador to Israel, in the 1970s, many of the observations made by Malcolm Toon, as revealed in a telegram that he sent to Washington, have the immediacy of something written this morning.

"From American Embassy, Tel Aviv. To Secretary of State, Washington D.C. Secret. Subject: Israel: An Assessment." Thus was headed a telegram of around 2,500 words, which ended by expressing concern: "I have almost come to the conclusion after my modest exposure to the complexities of this tortured part of the world that anything like a final settlement can come only after another war - a war which would bring ourselves and the Soviets into a posture of dangerous confrontation and compel us to impose a solution in order to avoid a mortal clash. Obviously, war cannot be a policy option for us, and, even if my gut feeling should in the end prove right, we must meanwhile do what we can to move toward a peaceful solution. I leave here with a conviction that whatever course we choose we will face immense difficulties, but also that there is no advantage in delaying or in shirking what will inevitably have to be done. Our friendship and our ties with Israel appear to me strong enough to stand the strains which will be put upon them."

His name was Malcolm Toon - "Mac," to his friends. Until his death last year, at 92, there seemed to be no more quintessential an American than he: He was born on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and died on another national holiday, February 12, Lincoln's birthday. He came from Scottish stock, was pigheaded and blunt, and sparing with praise. A most undiplomatic diplomat, who served as ambassador at four important embassies, Toon - who, like president John F. Kennedy, had been skipper of a PT boat in the Pacific during World War II - was primarily a man of battle on the diplomatic front of the Cold War.

In his younger years Toon served in Moscow during the tenure of ambassador George F. Kennan. Kennan was the author of one of the foundational documents of the Cold War, the "Long Telegram," which warned in 1946 against Soviet expansionist policy and proposed ways to contain it. Nearly 8,000 words long, it shaped clear-eyed thinking for generations. Toon's own lengthy telegram from Tel Aviv, dated December 15, 1976, was addressed to secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and perhaps destined for the file prepared for the transitional period between Kissinger and his successor at the U.S. State Department, Cyrus Vance. It was also essentially an homage to Kennan.

Toon spent only 18 months as president Gerald Ford's ambassador to Yitzhak Rabin's government, from mid-1975 to the end of 1976. Tens of thousands of State Department papers from that period were declassified recently, among them thousands of documents dealing with Israel. Many were sent to or from Toon, sometimes signed by his deputy, Tom Dunnigan.

One thing that can be learned from Toon's memos is that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did not invent the crisis surrounding the issue of movement toward peace. Another lesson is just how badly Rabin and his adversarial partner in governing, then-defense minister Shimon Peres, missed an opportunity to fly Anwar Sadat over to Israel - a move that would have left Menachem Begin as a footnote in Israeli history, a frustrated retiree who never realized his aspirations to the premiership.

In the spring of 1975, amidst a serious crisis between Israel and the United States (referred to as "the reassessment") over the Sinai II interim agreement, Kenneth Keating, America's envoy to Tel Aviv, died.

Telegram from ?a tough-minded S.O.B.?

Toon, who had no background in the Middle East, was the perfect candidate to take his place −a man who would not kowtow, regardless of extraneous pressures, even in the face of the political constraints presented by American Jewry. And Kissinger intended to go on formulating policy himself.

With elections looming in November 1976, there was also a rise in domestic U.S. tensions. Ford ran against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, and then against the Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter. Toon reported that Ariel Sharon, who had resigned as Rabin?s general adviser and was setting up a political party then, favored Carter.

In the late 1980s, Toon dictated his memoirs for the Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, saying: ?When I went to Israel as ambassador, Henry had become very upset with the Israelis, because he claimed that they had sabotaged and ruined his diplomatic shuttle exercise. So he wanted to send, as he put it, I think, rather crudely, ?a tough-minded S.O.B.? to Israel as ambassador in order to put the Israelis in their place. I had gained a reputation, whether justified or not - it depends on your own point of view − of being rather blunt, outspoken, tough, in dealing, primarily, with eastern Europeans and the Soviets. So Henry decided it would be a good idea to send me there.?

Kissinger instructed him, ??Get yourself out on the streets, meet the people, hold press conferences, get yourself on television, meet all the members of the Knesset, if necessary go behind the backs of the government to get the message across that we have a new policy.? That policy, he said, was ?to establish a good relationship with the moderate Arab states, if necessary, by supplying them with arms.??

Toon was taken aback, and replied rather presumptuously: ?You want me, as the American ambassador, to behave this way in Israel?? He pointed out to Kissinger that, ?No American ambassador has ever said, ?Boo,? has never uttered a statement of substance. He has always been, more or less, in the Israeli pocket ... Mr. Secretary, I am going to ask you something that will probably make you really mad, but I?ve got to know the answer. Does the president approve of this??

Kissinger did indeed lose his cool. He said, ?Are you questioning my integrity? Are you questioning my authority??

?No,? Toon replied. ?I just want to know if the president is behind this or not, because, you know, this is a very tricky business that you are mandating.?

?Yes,? Kissinger replied. ?He?s behind it.?

Sure enough, Toon was promptly perceived in Israel as hostile, although at State Department headquarters in Washington, his Arabist colleagues suspected him of falling, like his predecessors, into the trap of love of Zion. When the American envoys to the Middle East were recalled for consultations, including for conversations with Ford, the diplomats representing Arab capitals, headed by the ambassador to Cairo, Herman Eilts , insisted on meeting with the president separately, to voice their pro-Arab viewpoint without Toon being present. He was not offended: In return, he got to spend quality time in private with the president.Israeli press

In his memoirs, Toon grumbled that Israeli journalists ?simply don?t understand background rules. As you know, one is not supposed to name the source, and one is not supposed to quote directly.? In the first background press conference he held, he was asked to comment on Jerusalem?s direct lobbying of Congress to increase the aid package to Israel. Toon was harshly critical, calling such conduct ?dirty pool.? That very night he was identified on television as the source of the attack on Israel. The reporters present at the press conference had broken the rules by briefing their television news colleagues.

Message from Begin

Toon noted that Menachem Begin, head of the opposition Likud party, ?was a rather complex and interesting guy. I think in his later years, he became a little bit too serious about events and a little bit too insistent that his point of view was absolutely right, and nobody else had anything to say.? Toon estimated that Begin had zero chance of becoming prime minister.

Ahead of the envoy?s departure for his new Moscow posting, Begin invited him for a private luncheon in the Knesset. He asked Toon to come over to the window in the cafeteria, which overlooks the West Bank, and said: ?I want you to tell the president when you get back that those lands out there, which you call the West Bank - I will never call them the West Bank, I call them Judea and Samaria - those lands have always been Jewish. They are Jewish today. And they always will be Jewish.? In return, in the spirit of their open and frank relationship, Toon offered Begin a piece of advice on another matter: ?Why don?t you get out of politics, because you don?t really have a chance.?

A few months later, in May 1977, Begin was elected prime minister, and made a point of needling Toon in Moscow regularly with the same message: ?Tell the ambassador that I am the prime minister of Israel today, and I am going to be the prime minister for many years to come.?

The top government officials, Rabin, defense minister Shimon Peres, and foreign minister Yigal Allon, ?were three totally different guys. Rabin was deadly serious. He was a military man primarily. He headed up the armed forces during the wars of liberation. He had not much of a sense of humor. I got to know him very well, primarily because we were both tennis players. He and his wife and I and my wife used to play doubles on his court ... But he was a serious guy and tough. Very tough, indeed. But I always felt that he was completely honest. If he told me something, then I could rely upon it.

?Allon was a much gentler guy, in the sense that he was much more personable and friendly and outgoing and so forth. He was also a man of complete integrity, but much more emotional than Rabin was. For example, he would react in a much more emotional way to some of the things I would say than Rabin would.

?Peres was much more outgoing than either Rabin or Allon. When I would meet with him, it would usually be late in the afternoon. He would always produce a bottle of Scotch. And we had a little drink or two; a completely informal discussion. But I always had the impression - and this may not sit very well today - that he was a little bit slippery. I wasn?t entirely sure that the point of view he was conveying was going to be the point of view that he would convey to me tomorrow. I may be wrong in my judgment of the guy, but that was my gut reaction during the time.?

Keeping tabs on Dayan

Former defense minister Moshe Dayan - who was pushed to the political sidelines in the wake of the Agranat Commission report on the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and Golda Meir?s resignation - sniped at the Rabin government from the right, with Peres? encouragement. The U.S. Embassy continued to keep tabs on Dayan. A great deal of attention was devoted to his positions on political and nuclear matters.

In an earlier version of the relationship that now exists between Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson and the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom, Toon?s deputy Dunnigan reported to Washington about a plan to establish a new morning newspaper, Hayom Hazeh, with Dayan as editor-in-chief.

?Local observers are divided as to whether Dayan might eventually use newspaper initiative as launching pad for formation of center-right political force challenging Rabin in next election,? Dunnigan wrote in a cable on January 9, 1976.

?Financing of the new newspaper is shrouded in mystery. Dayan and [designated managing editor Haggai] Eshed have refused to reveal the names of their backers except to indicate that sponsorship is American and unaffiliated with any Israeli political party. Among names which have been mentioned are two American/Jewish businessmen: a?) Abraham Feinberg, head of the investors group which controls several enterprises in Israel including the highly lucrative Coca-Cola franchise; and b?) Julius Stulman, who had established the ?World Institute? in Jerusalem − a think-tank operation now being closed down. And there have been the apparently inevitable rumors of CIA financing.?

Three days later, Toon reported to Kissinger that Shimon Peres had met on January 8 with a Congressional delegation for a military briefing and dinner:

?At dinner following briefing Moshe Dayan was seated at head table and, at encouragement of Peres, answered additional questions from the Congressional delegation. Asked if the PLO should participate in negotiations, Dayan replied that the question is not whether Israel should sit with the PLO but what is to be discussed. If the PLO wants a Palestinian state, Israel should not sit with them; if they decide to be a part of Jordan, ?Then I personally can sit down and negotiate with them.??

On May 21, 1976, Dunnigan updated Kissinger on the subject of ?implications of Rabin/Peres relationship.? The two, he wrote, had met for a reconciliation meeting, but ?have agreed to a personal cease-fire, not to a peace agreement.?

In another telegram, Toon reported that if Peres forms a government, he intends to appoint Dayan minister of Arab affairs, and to restore the foreign ministry portfolio to Abba Eban, another of Rabin?s old rivals.Peres denied to Toon speculations that appeared in the press regarding the possibility that he would quit the Labor Party and join the Likud, terming them ?absurd.? Peres, three decades before he lost the Labor Party leadership to Amir Peretz and joined forces with Sharon in founding Kadima, said he always was and always would be loyal to the party.

The viewpoints of Rabin, Allon, Peres and Dayan on the subject of nuclear arms in the Middle East and their connection to the peace process were a frequent preoccupation for the American administration and its envoys.

Dayan?s support for an Israeli nuclear option stood out in particular.Dunnigan to Kissinger, February 13, 1976: ?Former defense minister Moshe Dayan told Bnai Brith group in Tel Aviv February 11 that Israel should try to achieve the option of a nuclear deterrent ?without the aid or control of the United States.? Dayan also reportedly said that Israel should build a missile of the Pershing type, capable of firing a conventional warhead a distance of 400 kilometers, to serve as a deterrent to Egypt and Syria. ?We do not need the Pershing to install an atomic warhead, and whoever says so is being misleading. An atom bomb can be dropped from an aircraft.? Dayan said that the nuclear option and long-range missile were needed for ?one simple reason − our lives depend on our ability to defend ourselves.??

Dunnigan went on to note that, ?Publication [in The Jerusalem Post] of Dayan?s remarks on Israeli nuclear option also reflects on erratic policies of the military censor. Chairman of Israel Journalists Association told us February 12 that nuclear reference has been cut out by censor. This decision either was reversed or the Post?s subsequent report slipped by unnoticed.?

Toon to Kissinger, November 12, 1976: Peres told the Congressional delegation headed by senators Abraham Ribicoff and Howard Baker ?that Israel?s wartime strength was 600,000 personnel, constituted primarily of reserve forces ... Addressing the possibility of a future nuclear arms confrontation in the Middle East, Peres stated nuclear weapons production is not a technological problem for Israel but that nuclear weapons are not an answer to the problems in the Middle East.?