Mark Shields: ‘You negotiate peace with your enemies’

By Mark Shields

Yitzhak Rabin, who fought in combat for his country’s creation and went on to command her defense forces, had the ideal credentials as prime minister to negotiate the historic Oslo Accords, which, for the first time, forced both the Israelis and the Palestinians to accept each other’s existence. For his work, Rabin earned the Nobel Peace Prize and the blind hatred of an Israeli religious zealot who, outraged by Rabin’s concessions to the Palestinians, assassinated the prime minister. Yitzhak Rabin had eloquently defended his unpopular partner in peacemaking: “You negotiate with your enemies, not with your friends.”

What brought these words of the martyred Rabin to mind was the combative U.N. speech of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, where he disparaged any possible thawing of U.S. relations, let alone renewed nuclear negotiations, with Iran and rejected the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Mr. Netanyahu, as skeptics are wont to do, went on to quote President Ronald Reagan’s famous maxim, “trust but verify.”

The irony of course is that it was President Ronald Reagan who, by signing with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which mandated a 50 percent cut in each country’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, boldly dared to alienate many of his own party’s most powerful forces.

Of the day that Reagan and Gorbachev signed the treaty, columnist-commentator George Will, then as now an influential conservative thinker and a personal friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, wrote, “December 8 will be remembered as the day the Cold War was lost.” (The Berlin Wall would come down just 23 months later.) William F. Buckley’s National Review devoted its entire issue to condemning the treaty with a front cover calling it “Reagan’s Suicide Pact.”

William Safire, a conservative columnist of The New York Times, was equally brutal on the “Gipper” writing the week of the treaty signing. He wrote that the Russians “now understand the way to handle Mr. Reagan: Never murder a man who is committing suicide.” Howard Phillips, the chairman of the Conservative Caucus, who, like former Governor Reagan, had been in 1978 a leading opponent of the Panama Canal treaty, accused Mr. Reagan of “fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”

Even Ronald Reagan’s fiercest critics stipulated the man’s comfort in his own skin and in his convictions. Unthreatened by the ridicule of even long-time allies, the president brought in the anchors of the then-four leading TV networks and directly challenged his opponents who questioned whether it ever really was either wise or practical to negotiate with people you, for good reasons, did not trusted. Of them, Mr. Reagan said: “Those people basically down in their deepest thoughts have accepted that war is inevitable.” Sound at all familiar to the current conversation?

An important part of the 2008 voter appeal of then-Senator Barack Obama was that he was new and fresh. He had not spent a lifetime in Washington. His political strength was simultaneously his political weakness. He never knew Ronald Reagan or any of the people who advised and supported Reagan while he prevailed over the ugly abuse and open distrust of many in his political base. Now as the Obama administration takes the first, tentative steps toward seeking to defuse the dangerous tensions with Iran, this president would be wise to seek the counsel and company of those who were there when Ronald Reagan dared to change history by negotiating nuclear arms reduction with the Gorbachev.

Yitzhak Rabin’s wisdom is both timeless and timely: “You negotiate peace with your enemies, not with your friends.”

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