Source: Interview with Mark Siegel, Interviewer: Judith Goldstein, Mark Siegel’s Office, Washington, DC, November 1st 1979 on deposit at Columbia University Library, pp. 333-336 of the interview.

In the 1960s and 70s, Mark Siegel was a Democratic Party operative who developed close personal and political ties to the American Jewish leadership and Israeli politicians, including Menachem Begin. In fall 1979, Siegel warned Begin that a Carter second term would be disastrous for Israel, noting that  “the Carter Administration is staffed in the highest places with people who are overly hostile to Israel and to Israel’s friends in the United States.” Begin in his reply to Siegel, astutely refuted Siegel’s assertion because Carter was at the time of the letter exchange still the sitting American president, and even if Begin agreed with Siegel, he could not so comment in writing. When the highly respected US Ambassador to Israel at the time, Samuel Lewis checked his sources in Israel after Carter’s defeat, he concluded that in fact Menachem Begin worked quietly but diligently against Carter’s 1980 re-election. Siegel’s assertions of Carter’s anti-Israeli outlooks are corroborated by other sources (noted extensively below) and by the administration’s actions. In  March 1983 and in March 1987 in visits to Israel where I accompanied President Carter, Begin was very cool and curt in a meeting Carter had with him in the Knesset at the time, and during the second visit, Begin refused to see Carter, telling his long-time aid, Yahiel Kadishai in my presence, “I will not meet with that man, he did not tell the truth about me.”

The exchange of letters and the context surrounding them demonstrate the high level of mutual ill-feeling that characterized the Carter administrations relationship with the American Jewish and Israeli leaderships during his presidency. As an adviser to Carter for several decades in his post-presidency at Emory University and at the Carter Presidential Center, I witnessed persistent reappearance of those steady irritants in Carter’s communications and relationships with diaspora Jews and Israelis.  Carter’s negative feelings toward Israel was relentlessly covered in his dozens of opinion pieces and public talks that he continue to give during four decades of his post-presidency; I witnessed those attitudes in writing The Blood of Abraham (1985) with him and they grew for decades thereafter, culminating with his criticisms and exaggerations about Israel found in his 2006 publication, Palestine Peace not Apartheid

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Siegel was Executive Director of the National Democratic Committee in 1976, having worked previously with Senators Fritz Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, two of the most stalwart supporters of Israel on Capitol Hill.  Siegel was instrumental in getting Carter get nominated and elected through the delegate selection process; he then became a White House assistant to Carter’s chief political strategist, Hamilton Jordan, subsequently resigned from the administration because of its persistently anti-Israeli actions and statements. Siegel eventually became a vocal antagonist of Carter,  working for Senator Ted Kennedy who would become  Carter’s rival for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Siegel greatly angered Carter administration personnel for showing ‘disloyalty’ to the president.   

This letter, and a my detailed interview with Siegel in 2010 are among numerous records, and interviews, including one from Rabbi Avi Weiss, in 2008 that provide strong evidence of the Carter administration’s anti-Israeli policies, including deep disagreements with Prime Ministers Rabin and Begin.  Severe Israeli disagreements with the Carter administration, as Siegel’s letter to Begin reaffirms, occurred before and after the onset and completion of Israel-Egyptian negotiations that lasted from 1977 through 1980. These differences were not merely over settlements or proposed territorial withdrawals from the West Bank or Jerusalem, or about establishing a Palestinian homeland, all three positions the Carter administration vigorously promoted during its four years in office, Siegel asserts that Carter’s National Security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski focused intently on breaking Israel’s influence in the making of American foreign policy toward the Middle East. And an estimable Middle East scholar, Daniel Brumberg’s 1982 research cogently demonstrates Brzezinski’s overt focus of building US military support for Saudi Arabia, thereby seeking to appease the Saudis in the hopes that they would support US efforts to promote a Palestinian state, and thus by design, limiting security support for Israel. Brzezinski argued that he wanted to prevent another oil embargo like the one that was imposed by Riyadh on the US after the October 1973 War. Further evidence, from Siegel and others with first-hand knowledge that Brzezinski’s simultaneous, if not more pressing objective was to reduce pro-Israeli influence among American Jews and in the Congress.  Yet, whenever the administration admonished Israel for not being forthcoming in negotiations,  Carter carefully reiterated his support for Israel security needs, but those needs were reduced and occasionally were threatened to be trimmed or delayed in delivery. There is no doubt the Brzezinski preferred to use a mailed fist toward Israel’s leaders to seek the political outcome he preferred, rather than use a velvet glove in approaching Israeli leaders, as suggested frequently by Lewis, the US Ambassador to Israel.

During its first six months in office, the Carter administration repeatedly made remarks that were viewed as deeply disturbing by Israeli leaders, which in turn caused concern among them, from American Jewish and congressional leaders who supported a security strong Israel vis a vis its Arab adversaries. When Rabin visited Washington in March 1977, he felt that Carter cornered him to force his offering of Israeli negotiating options that were clearly not in Israel’s strategic national interest. The Administration’s remarks made repeatedly in public focused on Israel’s need to withdraw to almost the pre-June 1967 war borders. Furthermore, the administration in private talks with Israeli leaders (in the public record from the Foreign Relations Documents of the United States), that Washington would use pressure Israel into replies Washington sought. Before Rabin’s visit, US Secretary of State Vance had heard directly from Israeli Foreign Minister Yigal Alon that Israel would neither negotiate with the PLO nor withdraw from the West Bank. Unknown to the Israelis in May 1977, the Carter administration was planning to invite the USSR as a co-convenor to the proposed Peace conference that was to be held in October 1977. In early fall 1977, both Israeli and Egyptian leaders wanted no Soviet participation in Middle Eastern diplomacy, and Egyptian President Sadat wanted neither the Syrians nor the PLO participating in any negotiations with Israel where either Syrian President Assad or PLO leader Arafat would delay Sadat’s intention of dealing directly with the Israelis. Opposition to Moscow’s potential participation was expressed explicitly in the secret Israeli-Egyptian talks that took place between Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Vice-President Tuhami in Morocco in September 1977. The Carter administration had adopted Brzezinski’s 1975 Brooking Institution comprehensive peace plan and was barreling head-long into a comprehensive Middle East peace that was not relished by either Israel or Egypt. Here the administration fully misunderstood the proud nationalist motivations of both Rabin/Begin and Sadat. Neither country was willing to relinquish their sovereign decision-making to an uncontrollable conference format nor to the United States with the USSR present.

So concerned was Hamilton Jordan about the negative domestic fallout building with the  American Jewish community that had been spawned by the Carter administration’s foreign policy actions and their public statements against Israel that he wrote and sent a highly secret policy action memorandum to Carter, “Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics: The Role of the American Jewish Community in the Middle East.” Jordan suggested taking immediate action to  reverse the Jewish community alienation. As it transpired, Jordan’s suggestions were not acted upon. In October when the administration surprised Israel by the invitation extended to Moscow to join negotiations, Israel and Israel’s supporters grew angrier. Israel’s Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan led the media charger against the administration that was threatening direct pressure on Israeli decision making. By the end of 1977, Jordan recruited help to slow down American Jewish dismay with the administration’s anti-Israeli overtures: he appointed Siegel who had deep personal connections to become the administration’s liaison to the Jewish community. 

Over the first year in office, Siegel increasingly disagreed with the administration’s anti-Israeli tilt. In December 1977, Siegel was told directly by Brzezinski that the administration wanted to break the back of AIPAC, the American Public Affairs Committee, Israel’s most effective lobbying group in Washington. In March 1978, Siegel resigned from his administration positions due to its heavy tilt away from Israel, his resignation was spawned as much by the sale of advanced fighter aircraft to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as have being told and instructed by the White House and State Department to promote the sale of the aircraft to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as a ‘defensive weapon.’  Siegel could not in good conscience go before Jewish audiences and perpetrate a lie that he was being asked to deliver. Hamilton Jordan was lived about Siegel’s resignation. It was from March 1978 through March 1979 that the critical detail was hammered out that became the substance for possible Palestinian Autonomy in the territories, and the outline and the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.  As it turned out, until the administration left office, Carter was more publicly critical of Israel than any previous administration, evidenced by its support of four UN resolutions that criticized Israel’s policies toward the territories, and particularly characterizing Israeli presence in Jerusalem as ‘unlawful.’  

By the time this letter was written to Menachem Begin in September 1979, Siegel was working for Ted Kennedy’s effort to unseat Carter as the Democratic nominee for the 1980 presidential election. In his letter, Siegel greatly criticized Ezer Weizman and Moshe Dayan, two of Begin’s cabinet colleagues for speaking highly about Carter in the American media. Siegel told Begin, “Jimmy Carter, if he were elected to a second term and were a “lame duck” President unencumbered by political reality would be a definite threat to the security of Israel. The Carter Administration is staffed in the highest places with people who are overly hostile to Israel and to Israel’s friends in the United States.” The letter is representative of the very rocky relationship that Begin had with Carter and that American Jews had with supporting Carter’s renomination; and the coming months before the November 1980 election.

In 1980, many American Jews vigorously worked against Carter’s renomination and voted against him in the spring 1980 primaries in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Michigan. In the November 1980 election, Carter polled 45% of the Jewish vote as compared to earning 71% of the Jewish vote in the 1976 election. Carter’s tally in the 1980 election from Jewish voters was the lowest percentage for any democratic candidate since 1928. After leaving office, Carter maintained to me while I was working for him, and he said it to many others, that if American Jews had not “abandoned” him by supporting Kennedy in his abortive effort to wrest the nomination for a sitting president, and by voting for Reagan in the election itself, he would have defeated Ronald Reagan. When I often challenged him on this point, Carter dismissed my suggestions that there was very high inflation, high gas costs, high mortgage rates, the Iran hostage crisis, and the general malaise many felt by significant numbers that he showed weak presidential leadership. For the remainder of Carter’s life he harbored resentment against Begin, AIPAC, American Jews for not supporting him, and successive Israeli prime ministers for not moving forward in providing for Palestinian self-determination, ending settlements, and withdrawing from the West Bank and Jerusalem. Carter expressed his frustrations and anger at Israel and American supporters of Israel for the rest of his life.

September 27, 1979 

Dear Mr. Prime Minister (Begin)

I have never received any acknowledgement of the letter I sent you on July 19th, but since I am aware that you have in the interim met with David Garth, I assume you have been exposed to those thoughts which inspired me enough to warrant my initial letter. Just so that I can be assured that my written communications actually reach you, I would appreciate it is you would have Yehiel (Kadishai)acknowledge receipt even if you are too busy to do it yourself.

I have become increasingly concerned about the role of the Government of Israel in the internal political process in the United States. As we have discussed on several occasions, I am a strong supporter of Senator Kennedy for the Presidential nomination of my party. On my last visit with you early in the summer I indicated to you that Senator Kennedy would, in my informed judgment, challenge Jimmy Carter for the Presidency. I also tried to communicate to you through my friends my disagreement with Eppi (Evron’s) private comments to members of your government and to prominent Jews in the United States the view that Jimmy Carter will almost certainly be renominated and reelected. It is a foolish judgment shared by few informed observers of the American political scene, and unfortunately, I perceive it to be as much “advocacy” as personal judgment. If this were a single incident, I probably would not raise an objection, but unfortunately, I now see it as part of a pattern. Just last week Ezer Weizman on ABC Television praised Jimmy Carter ad nauseam, “tenacious, brave, fearless, courageous,” et cetera. Minutes after the show Bob Strauss called me to brag how he “got Ezer to make his statement” with Strauss even taking credit for the exact words that Weizman used.

Now Dayan in the United States says he disagrees with American Jewry on Jimmy Carter, and claims Carter has done more for Israel and is a better friend to Israel than any President in U.S. history.

These incredible remarks are plastered all over the newspapers today, especially in New York and in Florida. Additionally, we are now bombarded with news reports about the “intimate relationship between Hamilton Jordan and the Prime Minister of Israel.”

This sudden revelation, used to explain why the President will not remove Jordan even if Jordan’s drug scandal deepens, is being shamelessly fed to members of the press by the White House staff, including Jody Powell and Jordan himself.

Mr. Prime Minister, you know that it is my view that Jimmy Carter is no friend of Israel. It is also my view that Jimmy Carter, if he were elected to a second term and were a “lame duck” President unencumbered by political reality would be a definite threat to the security of Israel. The Carter Administration is staffed in the highest places with people who are overly hostile to Israel and to Israel’s friends in the United States.

Senator Kennedy on the other hand has proved over the last 17 years that he is indeed our friend. Not once in the U.S. Senate has, he failed us.

Senator Kennedy is favored by American Jews for the Democratic Presidential nomination by an astounding 83 to 11 over Jimmy Carter in the latest unpublished poll. He will be strongly supported and endorsed by Israel’s most prominent friends in the United States Senate. I will work for him openly and tirelessly, and one of the principal reasons for my support is his commitment to us and my fear of the alternative.

But saying all of this I do not urge you to do anything in the American political race. Indeed, I do not believe that it is the role of the Government of Israel to get involved in American politics, just as it wasn’t a proper role for Jimmy Carter and his administration to intervene for Labor against you in 1977.

I write this letter to you because we have always had a close and candid relationship, and I want you to know of my concerns forthwith.

I think the perception of Israeli support for Carter is dangerous and ridiculously non deserved. I would hope that you will encourage your Cabinet to stay out of American politics. I would like to hear from you on the subject if you have some time to write.

Warmest regards, Happy New Year,

Mark Siegel

Menachem Begin to Mark Siegel, Interviewer: Judith Goldstein, Mr. Siegel’s Office, Washington, DC, November 1, 1979 (Columbia University held Goldstein-Siegel tapes)

October 9, 1979 

Dear Friend:

I thank you for your letter of September 27th which reached me last week. I cannot but express regret for having not replied to your previous letter. Mishaps sometimes occur. In this instance, my recent indisposition and subsequent convalescence created an unfortunate backlog in my correspondence. I can only offer you my apologies, trusting that you will understand and forgive.

The matter you raised in your most recent letter is of the most delicate nature, and there is much to say about a problem of such far-reaching significance. Just let me comment that given the context and the circumstances I do not believe that my colleagues were at fault. The explanations I received appeared to me to be both proper and appropriate. Permit me to say that there are some passages in your letter which derive from what I can only describe as unwarranted rumors.

Be this as it may, I would prefer – as I am sure you will understand – to chat with you personally rather than to go into details in writing. I hope it will not be too long before you will be visiting us again. Then we could meet and talk over these issues.

With every good wish,

Sincerely,

Begin

For additional evidence of Carter’s rocky relationship with Israel and American Jewry during his presidency, please see,  Peter Evan Bass, The Anti-Politics of Presidential Leadership and American Jews,  Princeton University Senior Honor’s Thesis, April 1985, reprinted by permission from the author, and Ken Stein Interview with Mark Siegel, July 21, 2010.