The Case for Kerry: Strength Through Respect

By Bruce Terris

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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I am a Washington lawyer who moved to Israel 20 years ago and has since lived in Jerusalem roughly half of the year. As you might well guess, I care deeply about the security of Israel. I am a member of Likud, the party of Prime Minister Sharon. Like a majority of Likud and unlike Sharon, I oppose giving back Gaza and a portion of the West Bank unilaterally. While I would support substantial territorial concessions in the context of a full settlement and full peace, I cannot agree to giving back land in return for nothing.

Because of this — not despite it — I strongly support the election of John Kerry as president.

Why? Hasn’t President Bush been good for Israel? That is what some American Jews and Israelis believe. Bush has made many statements supporting the right of Israel to protect itself against terrorism. Unfortunately, many of them have been followed by statements from the State Department saying exactly the opposite. On Monday, there is a suicide bomber in Jerusalem. On Tuesday, Bush’s spokesman condemns the bombing and says that ISrael has the right to self-defense. On Wednesday, Israel takes military action. On Friday, the State Department warns Israel against taking disproportionate action.

In this way, the administration has tried to support two irreconcilable positions. Talk about flip-flopping.

Bush has taken the position throughout the world — Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere — that terrorists must be crushed by force, not negotiated with. The Republican platform states unequivocally that a second Bush administration promises “no negotiation with terrorism.” As a result, there has been no negotiation with Al Qaeda or the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, simply the use of overwhelming military might.

Compare that with the Bush administration’s position on Israel. While there have been no negotiations with Yasser Arafat, Israel has been pressured repeatedly to negotiate with his underlings — many of whom are terrorists themselves. The administration’s road map requires Israel to concede most of the territories in return for little more than promises of peace. How good are promises from people who have spent their lives as terrorists?

The Bush administration has repeatedly criticized Israel for targeting Palestinians who had been directly involved in terrorist attacks because of the collateral harm to civilians that resulted. Yet this administration has over and over again used far more firepower in attempts to kill Osama bin Laden and Saddam and other terrorists in Iraq, despite far greater civilian casualties.

In other words, despite all the rhetoric, the Bush administration has proposed one set of principles for the United States and an entirely different set for Israel.

Even though Kerry has been a steadfast supporter of Israel his entire political life, I am not saying that as president, Kerry would have a substantially different policy. Because of the desire not to alienate Muslims any more than they already have been, Kerry, like Bush, would undoubtedly try to square a circle, to support Israel without stirring up America’s few Muslim friends. The major difference would be to end the hypocrisy that Bush has a consistent policy of defeating terrorism by military means.

However, while the words of a Kerry administration might not be significantly different from the words of the Bush administration, the security of Israel would be far better served. Israel’s security depends on the strength of the United States. Sadly, Israel has virtually no other friend in the world. Europe almost always opposes Israel’s need to defend itself. Third World countries almost always support Arab positions. And the situation would surely be much worse if the United States were not vetoing one-sided Security Council resolutions and pressuring its friends to at least pretend they have an even-handed approach.

Unfortunately, Bush has — in less than four-years time — enormously weakened the United States.

First, he has made the United States a virtual pariah in the world. For nearly a century, the United States has not only had the strongest military, it has also been widely admired. Today, even our closest friends in Europe are doubting our leadership. I am not talking about the French and German governments. Those leaders and their policies will inevitably change. I am talking about the people of Europe and other countries who have been deeply estranged by this administration.

Who would have imagined only a few years ago that American athletes would be booed at the Olympic Games? Who would believe that a majority of the population in many European countries would believe that the United States is the No. 1 danger to peace, as a recent poll shows?

This did not come about just from the Iraq war. Even before the war, the Bush administration had made clear that it had no respect for other countries by repudiating previous American positions on climate change and other important agreements. With regard to the Iraq war itself, the administration made clear that it would not take seriously the opinions of even America’s best friends. It is therefore hardly surprising that when Bush wanted help from other countries to suppress the violence after the war, few countries would provide substantial assistance.

Second, the Bush administration has not only alienated other nations, it has divided Americans. Far from being a uniter, Bush has deliberately been a divider. It is doubtful that the country has been so badly split since the Civil War. Americans do not just disagree; all too often, they hate their political leaders and each other.

The results can be seen in Congress, where no legislation of consequence has been passed this year. While this division among Americans has not yet harmed Israel, such harm is virtually certain to occur if the United States continues to be weakened by those who believe that division aids their political fortunes.

Third, the American military has been seriously weakened. At the same time that it has inadequate forces in Iraq to suppress the rebellion, it has had to force National Guard and reserve troops to extend their service in Iraq well beyond their original assignments. As a result, Bush is reducing the number of American troops in other places overseas, including Asia, where North Korea poses a serious danger.

The result of the weakening of the American military is that American power in the world has been seriously diminished. For example, after the Iraq invasion, Iran and Syria seemed more accommodating because they had seen the overwhelming power of the United States. However, since it is now obvious that the United States cannot act militarily against Iran and Syria, they are ignoring American demands. Iran’s refusal to stop the development of nuclear technology is a far more serious threat to Israel and the world than Saddam ever was.

But hasn’t the Iraq war increased Israel’s security? Of course, Iraq under Saddam was an enemy of Israel. Therefore, no Israeli, and few other people, is sorry that he is gone. But Israel’s security has hardly improved. If one were to list the Middle Eastern countries most dangerous to Israel and to world peace when the Iraq war began, Iraq would have at best ranked fourth. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria were certainly far more dangerous.

The administration has real evidence that Iran is working on nuclear weapons and that there can be no doubt it has long-range missiles which can easily reach Israel. However, Iran knows that the United States is so tied up in Iraq that it cannot take military action against it. So it is ignoring American demands for international inspection. Saudi Arabia has been the financier of extreme Islamic groups throughout the world.

Fourth, Bush has severely weakened the American economy. The most serious danger is not the slow recovery from the recession but the huge deficits that exist today and will continue far out into the future because of tax cuts for the rich. Whereas when President Clinton left office, economists were worrying about the possible economic harm if the entire national debt were eliminated in a decade, the problem today is that there is no money even for serious national problems — Social Security, health care, education and the military.

In short, the United States is a far weaker country today than it was four years ago. And because its only friend is weaker, Israel is much weaker, too. Bush’s statements in support of Israel are not nearly enough to make up for this reality.

Bruce Terris is a Washington-based lawyer who has argued 20 cases in the United States Supreme Court.






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