Many on the political right are dreading Barack Obama’s inauguration. But for all the rhetoric that issued from the Jewish right about the dangers a Democratic victory would pose to Israel during the past year, can any conservatives honestly say that they’re particularly pleased with President Bush’s recent Middle East policies?
Sure, there are a few die-hards who still harbor warm feelings for Bush. But his record is widely regarded with scorn as one of failure and incompetence. Since they had little else to brag about during the 2008 campaign, Jewish Republicans repeatedly pointed to his record as a friend of Israel.
This was largely based on the personal alliance struck between the president and Ariel Sharon, who was elected prime minister of Israel a month after Bush arrived at the White House. The old general inspired deep respect from the Texan that, when combined with the latter’s evangelical religious beliefs, helped guide American foreign policy in the early years of Bush’s first term.
Bush backed Sharon’s decision in 2002 to do whatever was necessary to squelch the Palestinian terror offensive during the second intifada. He also supported the construction of the border fence designed to keep out terrorists. Most importantly, in 2004 he issued a letter to Israel in which he tacitly acknowledged that any future peace deal would have to take into account the changes on the ground since 1967. Israelis took that to mean American backing for their holding onto the major West Bank settlement blocs. At the same time, Bush hedged his support for the creation of a Palestinian state with the caveats that any progress toward this goal was contingent on the Palestinians embracing democracy, abandoning terror and replacing their corrupt leadership.
Bush was also fully on board for Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, carried out in August 2005. Rather than needle both Israelis and Arabs to negotiate a land-for-peace settlement that Palestinians have demonstrated by their actions they really don’t want, the White House was in step with Sharon’s position that Israel ought to retreat to the borders it deemed secure and then wait for the Palestinians to come to terms with reality.
Even when Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, foolishly took an unprepared Israel into an all-out war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Bush again loyally stood by Israel.
Yet in the two years since Olmert’s Lebanon debacle, the Bush administration has largely backed away from its previous stances. Historians may well debate whether this was due to the absence of Sharon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s rising influence during Bush’s second term or the perception that the conflict in Iraq required America’s policies to tilt toward the Arabs.
But whatever the reason, there is little doubt that by the end of the Bush administration its policies more closely resembled those of its predecessor than its own during the previous six years.
In his first term, Bush held the Palestinian leadership responsible for its murderous policies, but he never held Yasser Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, to a similar standard of accountability. Then, in a great political blunder, Bush pushed the Palestinians to hold elections in which Hamas came out triumphant, resulting in Washington’s belief that it had to support Abbas and his Fatah forces unconditionally, no matter what they did or said.
Rather than continue to wait for the Palestinians to get their own house in order, Bush allowed Rice to launch a new peace process at Annapolis in the fall of 2007. This initiative was more an exercise in public relations than actual peacemaking, but the consequences of this move effectively nullified Bush’s 2004 stand on borders.
Indeed, in September, Jacob Walles, the American consul in Jerusalem, told the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Ayyam that Rice had informed both the Palestinian Authority and Israel that future negotiations “must be based on withdrawal” to the 1949 armistice lines. By doing so, and by consistently refusing to reaffirm the president’s pledge about the settlement blocs and criticizing Israeli building in those areas, the secretary has made it clear that Bush’s letter had become just a piece of paper, not a promise on which Israel could rely.
Even worse, by the end of 2008, Bush’s weakness had hindered America’s ability to act on an even greater threat to Israel: Iran’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons. In his last year in the White House, Bush backed off his promise to refuse to talk to the Iranians and, as he limped out of office, appeared content to merely pass off this looming crisis to his successor.
All of this ought to leave those committed to Israel’s security thinking that they will be better off once Bush is gone. For the past two years, they have been stuck defending the president even though the policies that had won their favor were effectively scuttled.
Just as American conservatives are better off no longer having to rationalize the behavior of a Republican president and a congressional caucus that had compromised their principles on fiscal probity as well as demonstrating incompetence, pro-Israel conservatives should rejoice that they will no longer be burdened by any obligation to back Bush.
Jonathan S. Tobin was executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia from 1998 to 2008. In January, he will become executive editor of Commentary magazine.