Seizing on what they see as a rare opportunity to attack President Bush’s foreign policy without appearing unpatriotic, Democrats and liberals are rushing to condemn the White House for its stance on Saudi Arabia — and in some cases, on the Middle East peace process.
The attacks are opening up a rift within the liberal camp, however. While accusing Bush of softness on Saudi Arabia has nearly unanimous support among Democrats, the attacks on his policies toward Israel are drawing less support, pitting activist Middle East doves against an alliance of pro-Israel hawks and partisan Democrats.
Leading the attacks on Bush’s Israel policies are a handful of Democratic lawmakers, many of them from districts with large Jewish populations in places like New York and Florida. The critics are trying to draw a direct link between the president’s supposed laxity toward Riyadh and his stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which they portray as too tough on Israel. The common thread in the argument is that the president, for all his pro-Israel rhetoric, is tilting toward the Arab side.
“Bush is coddling Saudi Arabia, and he has determined that he knows better than Israelis how to defend themselves,” Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida told the Forward. “He just wants to ingratiate himself with the Arab world.… Who’s this president telling Israel what to do?”
That approach is opposed, however, by activist Middle East doves, who support the president’s “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace and do not want to jeopardize its progress.
“I applaud President Bush’s engagement in the peace process,” said Alan Solomont, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and a former national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee. “I would encourage other Democrats to do so.”
Referring to the Democrats who criticized Bush’s Israel policies, Solomont said: “I don’t share their criticism, and I believe Bush needs to have the freedom to say things to both sides even if they don’t like it.”
Democratic attacks on the president’s foreign policy have heated up dramatically during the last week, since the release of a congressional report on the September 11 attacks, lengthy portions of which were kept classified at White House insistence. Much of the classified material is said to deal with evidence of official Saudi support for Al Qaeda and the September 11 hijackers.
Critics say the administration wants the material kept classified in order to protect a key ally and oil supplier for questionable geopolitical and financial motives.
The report was released July 24.
Democratic attacks on the president’s policies toward Israel began the next day, after Bush met at the White House with the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Bush was critical of Israel’s planned security fence in the West Bank, calling it a “problem” and saying it was “very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank.”
His remarks touched off a flurry of criticism. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, while acknowledging that the administration had been supportive of Israel until now, said that pressure was now being put on Israel, and it was “misguided.” Another New York Democrat, Rep. Steve Israel, spoke of a “double standard.”
Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said the criticism was unwarranted and insisted Israel had no better friend than America. Moreover, he said, Saudi Arabia has been a “close ally” in the war on terror.
“On occasions, we might have some differences with Israel, and the security fence is one of them,” he said. But he added: “We don’t put pressure on Israel. We work closely together.”
The president himself appeared to tone down his criticisms this week after his meeting with Prime Minister Sharon. Sharon, addressing reporters after the meeting, defended the security fence and insisted it “will continue to be built with every effort to minimize the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population.”
Bush, in response, said he understood that the fence was a “sensitive issue” and expressed hope that it would eventually become “irrelevant” once terrorist organizations have been dismantled.
Some Democrats were sympathetic with Bush’s attempts to balance support for the peace process with support for Israel.
“It is not clear that he is pressuring Israel,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York. “He did speak about the fence being unhelpful, but we still have to see if he will continue to do so. If he does, I would be very critical because he should not press Israel on this issue.”
Nadler said that while most Democrats were eager to rally around the criticism of Saudi Arabia and to lock horns with “soft-pedaling” Republicans, they were less eager to take on a strongly pro-Israel president like Bush.
Among Democratic presidential candidates, most preferred to focus their attacks on Saudi Arabia. Only Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was critical of the administration, saying in an interview in the New York Sun this week that the president was leaning on Israel over the road map.
Nadler is one of several Democrats who pushed for legislative action against Saudi Arabia last month. He supported an amendment to the House foreign operations spending bill, introduced by fellow New York Democrats Steve Israel and Anthony Weiner, that would have prohibited American aid to Saudi Arabia. Israel said the amendment was defeated “under pressure from the Bush administration.”
“We are at war with Islamic terrorism, and Saudi Arabia is at the epicenter,” Nadler said. “I see Saudi Arabia as a much bigger threat than Iraq.”
Asked about the reasons behind the reluctance of the Bush administration to confront Saudi Arabia directly, Wexler, Nadler and Engel all mentioned oil dependency and the numerous business and personal ties linking administration members and allies with the Saudi kingdom.
“We know Bush’s father had strong ties with Saudi Arabia,” said Engel. “We hadn’t seen that with Bush Junior until now, but I am starting to worry. If further attempts are made to paper over the central terrorist role of Saudi Arabia, you’re going to hear noise in Congress, and not only from Democrats.”
McCormack, the White House spokesman, dismissed the allegations. “We’re not trying to shield the Saudis,” he said. “The president is not basing his decisions on such principles but on solid national security grounds.”
Senator Bob Graham of Florida sent Bush a letter on Monday asking him to reconsider the “censorship of a key section of the Joint Inquiry’s report on 9/11.” Saudi officials, who complained that the censorship was hurting the kingdom, made similar demands.
However, Bush rejected the calls on Tuesday before a hastily arranged meeting with the Saudi foreign minister, arguing that it would compromise intelligence sources and methods. Still, Bush left open the possibility of further declassification down the road.
Nadler said he believed the classified section would eventually be released because of public opinion pressure on the administration.