That lesson has defined Israeli policy for decades, but it is being eroded by Jerusalem's acquiescence to a U.S. administration that has implemented a foreign policy based more on faith than pragmatism.
A stubbornly ideological administration has put the United States in a deep hole in the international arena -- and a vulnerable Israel could pay a big price for playing along with the true believers in Washington.
While Israel has always taken a hard line on terrorists and front-line adversaries, it has traditionally remained open to peace feelers, however tenuous.
It wasn't just U.S. pressure that caused the hard-line Yitzhak Shamir government to start talking to a blood-drenched PLO or to engage in the Madrid peace process in the early 1990s. Yitzhak Rabin, a celebrated general who could hardly be called a peacenik, signed the Oslo agreement and shook Yasser Arafat's hand in 1993, not because he believed the old terrorist leader had suddenly developed a love of Zion but because of a conviction that Israel's future was dependent on finding some way to talk to its enemies.
Syria has long been a fomenter and supporter of terrorism and a source of regional instability. But the Jewish state has never shrunk from talking to Damascus whenever its leaders believed there was even a glimmer of hope to advance negotiations and avoid war.
Israel has even maintained backchannel contacts with Iran, despite the fanaticism of its leaders, in the belief that such contacts could someday pay important dividends.
Israeli governments representing both the left and the right understood that you make peace with your enemies, not your friends, and that in the Middle East, every chance for peace is a long shot. That has been the U.S. view of the region as well -- until now.
An administration driven by rigid ideology expects Israel to play by the same rules. Current U.S. doctrine says you never talk to terrorists or terror-sponsoring countries; therefore Israel must do the same, regardless of its very different circumstances.
When Syrian president Bashar Assad sent out tentative peace feelers last year, the Bush administration laid down the law to Israel: don't respond, even though some analysts in the Israeli government believed there might be slight shifts in the Syrian position that were worth exploring.
Last week, those instructions became even more explicit; according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her recent Mideast visit, demanded that Israel avoid even exploratory contacts with the Assad regime.
The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not particularly inclined to start new talks with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, but there, too, the Bush administration has made its demands clear: don't give Hamas or anybody connected to it the time of day.
Israel is in a straitjacket of American design, barred from employing its traditional hard-headed pragmatism, prevented from exploring possible new routes to peace. It is treated as a client state, not an ally; its politically weak leaders, afraid of angering a senior partner in Washington that believes talking to enemies is tantamount to endorsing them, meekly complies with U.S demands.
Jerusalem should look more closely at what these policies have done to U.S. interests and influence around the world.
President Bush's black-and-white, good-versus-evil view of a complex world and his refusal to negotiate with those he deems unworthy have left the United States with almost no allies and little credibility.
That isolation has undercut U.S. efforts to deal with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of extremists and increased, not decreased, the armies of terrorists eager to lash out against enemies real and imagined.
The Iraq war he started on the basis of ideology, not intelligence, has spread instability across the Middle East and strengthened Iran, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.
Washington's refusal to talk to Iran hasn't slowed its quest for nuclear weapons, and may have rallied a restive populace behind an increasingly unpopular leadership. It's refusal to talk to Syria hasn't changed Syrian behavior for the better, and may have pushed Damascus deeper into the Iranian orbit.
So shouldn't Israel's leaders be alarmed that on key matters involving their nation's security they are being dictated to by a government in Washington whose ideology-driven foreign policy has undercut vital shared priorities and added to the dangers Israel faces in a seething Middle East?
Faith-based foreign policy hasn't worked for Washington, and now it threatens to compound the problems facing a Jewish state that once based its foreign policy on tough pragmatism, not theories and beliefs. Israel can't afford to thumb its nose at its only real ally -- but there could be a big cost to continuing to follow the dictates of an administration that remains pure in its beliefs but increasingly alone in its policies.