How 9/11 Changed U.S. Policy Toward Israel

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An ABC News breaking report. Sometimes events change the way news is covered.Credit: News Agencies

This article was originally published on September 9, 2011

The political-security cabinet meeting on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was proceeding calmly. The second intifada was in full swing. The ministers listened to security briefings. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led the discussion patiently. At approximately 3:30 P.M. the Prime Minister's Bureau chief, Uri Shani, received a note from his secretary. Bruce Teitelbaum, the adviser to New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, wished to speak with him.

Ariel Sharon, left, and George W. Bush at a 2005 press conference at the president’s Texas ranch.Credit: Bloomberg

"I stepped out of the meeting and went to my room," Shani says. "Teitelbaum was on the line. We spoke for a few minutes, I don't remember about what. Suddenly he screamed, and the line went dead. A minute later I heard one of the secretaries in the adjacent room say that an airplane had hit one of the twin towers. I turned on a television and saw the first images. I wrote a note: 'Plane collided with one of the twin towers,' returned to the cabinet room and handed it to Sharon. He read and passed it on to Foreign Minister [Shimon] Peres, who was sitting next to him. 'The twins in Ramat Gan?' Peres asked. 'No. In New York,' I told him."

Sharon read out the note to the ministers. "For some reason he said it was a light plane," recalls Sharon's media adviser, Arnon Perlman. "Just then the defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, received a note from his military secretary. He said something too, I don't remember what. After a few minutes we realized it wasn't a light plane."

The meeting was adjourned. Peres and Ben-Eliezer went down to the Prime Minister's Bureau and entered Sharon's office. Other ministers rushed to the room of Cabinet Secretary Gideon Sa'ar, to watch events unfold on television. There they saw the plane hit the second tower.

"We sat down in Sharon's room and watched the images," Perlman says. "I remember that a few of the settler leaders who used to hang about the bureau were sitting with us. Don't remember if it was Zambish [Ze'ev Chever], Uri Elitzur or both."

Shani: "We sat in Sharon's room and watched television. Peres was there and in the beginning also Fuad [Ben-Eliezer]. I don't remember the settlers being there. Why would there be settlers milling around the bureau during a cabinet meeting?"

Ben-Eliezer: "When the cabinet adjourned, we went down to Sharon's room. I was supposed to fly to Washington that evening, for a meeting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. 'You have nowhere to go,' Sharon said to me. I tried calling Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, but there was no answer. I took my team and we raced over to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv."

Perlman: "We sat with Arik and watched television. Anyone familiar with the bureau knows that both doors, the outer and inner ones leading to the prime minister's room, are always closed. Certainly the inner one. That afternoon they were open - anyone who felt like it entered the room. Secretaries, officials, ministers came and went. The distance was shattered. It was surreal. Sharon watched and didn't say a word. He's not one of those who says what he's thinking out loud."

Shani: "A few minutes after the second plane hit, the guys from the security detail came to me. They wanted to hustle Sharon off to a secure place. They were afraid a car bomb would explode against the office wall. I told them: Absolutely not. The prime minister is staying in his office. And he did."

Perlman: "There was nothing to do but watch television. It was a frustrating feeling. The first instinct of the Prime Minister's Bureau in situations like this is to act. Here there was nothing to do."

Shani: "One of the first discussions that took place that day concerned what to do if a civilian plane approached the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv and there was no radio response [from it]. The defense minister and the IDF chief of staff requested permission to intercept any such plane immediately, without informing the prime minister. Sharon declined. He demanded that everything be brought to him."

Ben-Eliezer: "We sat at the Defense Ministry and there wasn't much to do, other than a situation assessment. I summoned the head of Military Intelligence and he said it was Al-Qaida. I periodically spoke with Sharon on the red phone. This had been unimaginable. Who had thought two planes could topple the twin towers in New York? A month later I went to the United States and met with Rumsfeld."

Shani: "I remember that at the first meeting between Sharon and [U.S. President George W.] Bush, long before the terror attacks in the U.S., Arik said in front of me and U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice: 'Mr. President, terror is not only an Israeli matter. It is a global concern. The U.S. needs to stand at the head of those fighting terror because terror will assume another face: nuclear, biological or chemical."

Dealing with the Bushes

The terror attack in the U.S. occurred one year after the start of the second intifada, at the height of a wave of suicide bombings in Israel. Israel had a new prime minister, Ariel Sharon. The United States had a new president, George W. Bush. His father, President George H. W. Bush, had been very tough on Yitzhak Shamir's Likud government, withholding $10 billion in vital economic guarantees.

Sharon, who had been a minister in Shamir's government, was persona non grata in Washington during the elder Bush's administration term. He was considered an extremist, the settlers' patron. Sharon had good reason to fear that Bush Jr. would adopt his father's attitude toward him. Ostensibly, the terror attacks that left 3,000 dead in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania should have bolstered Israel's self-confidence and faith in its path. But in the weeks immediately following 9/11, Israel's political leadership was profoundly worried.

"It was not clear to us where Israel-U.S. relations were headed in the wake of the terror attacks," recalls Gideon Sa'ar, who is today minister of education. "A few months before September 2001, the Mitchell Report was released, a study led by Senator George Mitchell that examined the roots of the second intifada. Among other things, it determined that Israel must cease all settlement construction, including that meant to accommodate natural growth. It was a tough report for Israel, and I believe it was also unfair to us [the report would later be shelved]. After the attacks, we were concerned that this mindset would take over the international discourse; that bin Laden would tell the Americans they were paying the price for the Middle East conflict."

Sa'ar further recalls, "A short time before September, the Israel Defense Forces went a few meters into Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip to capture terrorists or thwart an attack. The entire international community was in an uproar. We were flooded with condemnations."

On October 5, Sharon stood before the cameras and microphones at a public event. That morning there had been another suicide attack in Israel. Three were killed and seven wounded. Two days earlier, there had been a terror attack at the settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip. Two were killed and 16 wounded.

"All of our efforts to attain a cease-fire have been torpedoed by the Palestinians. The fire did not cease, even for one day," Sharon said. "We are currently in the midst of a complex and difficult diplomatic campaign. I turn to the Western democracies, first and foremost the leader of the free world, the United States. Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938, when the enlightened democracies of Europe decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for the sake of a temporary, convenient solution. Don't try to appease the Arabs at our expense. We will not accept this. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terror. There's no difference between 'good terror' and 'bad terror,' just as there is no difference between 'good murder' and 'bad murder.' Terrorism, as we witnessed this week in Alei Sinai, is worse than murder."

A sea change

The blunt speech shocked the U.S. administration, which was still counting the bodies in the ruins and attempting to track down the attackers. Bush was furious. Sharon would later be compelled to convey to the White House a clarification-cum-apology for his radical comparison.

"After the attacks, the entire international establishment, headed by the U.S., fundamentally changed its approach to mass terror attacks," Sa'ar says. "This also increased the maneuvering room for Israel, which half a year after Sept. 11 embarked on Operation Defensive Shield in Judea and Samaria with the Americans' support. Bush declared, you're either with us or you're with the terrorists. Israel found itself on the right side. Terror was no longer seen as legitimate. Yasser Arafat's cachet was greatly reduced. He continued to incite terror and encourage attacks, and his downfall began with the capture of the weapons ship Karine A."

This vessel was carrying arms to the Palestinians and was captured by the Israeli navy in the Red Sea on January 3, 2002. Credible intelligence proved Arafat was behind the ship. Arafat denied it, but the Americans realized they were dealing with a habitual liar. The White House and State Department drew conclusions and began nurturing his heirs, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad.

"Meanwhile," Sa'ar went on, "the personal relationship between Bush and Sharon grew much tighter. Following the September 11 attacks, Bush finally understood Sharon's situation as leader of a nation fighting mass terror attacks. He began to identify with him."

Sa'ar believes the Palestinian Authority's current strategy of countering terror is also a product of 9/11. "The Palestinian leadership understood that terror would not serve their people's interests, in the wake of the global change regarding attitudes to terror. The extremist organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, still espouse terror, but the PA is sticking to this strategy. It understands that any shift toward terror will not serve its purposes."

In August 2005 Sharon evacuated all of the settlements from the Gaza Strip, even Alei Sinai, and became a popular and esteemed leader on a global scale. Ehud Olmert, who replaced him when he became ill, also inherited the friendship with Bush. During Olmert's three years in office, that friendship grew even deeper.

Olmert initiated two wars: against Hezbollah in Lebanon and against Hamas in Gaza. The White House completely supported both. The seven and a half years that had elapsed since the terror attacks in the U.S. had turned Bush into Israel's No. 1 supporter in its campaign against terror. He initiated a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and invaded Iraq to eliminate Saddam Hussein. Not for nothing was he dubbed "the Likudnik" in the corridors of the Prime Minister's Bureau.

But Bush's two terms in office came to an end, and after him came Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and everything changed. Even George Mitchell was back. Benjamin Netanyahu, who settled into the Prime Minister's Bureau after eight years of Sharon and Olmert, did not get to enjoy even a single day of grace, a single day of Bush.