Those who feared that President Bush had turned his back on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process can breathe easy. Whatever he may have been up to in the past, the man from Crawford is now back in the game, and to all appearances he’s playing to win.
The result is a bit like sausage-making: The outcome may prove to be healthy, but it’s not much fun to watch.
After three years of insisting to the world that Israel had a right to defend itself in any way it saw fit, the president has now decided he wants Israel to implement Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, and he wants it now. The reason, as noted by observers as credible as Israel’s own military intelligence chief, has less to do with the welfare of Israelis and Palestinians than with Bush’s need to regain credibility in Europe and at the United Nations in order to claw his way out of the Iraqi quagmire. That doesn’t make the plan a bad one, but it erodes Bush’s credibility as a broker.
Sharon had presented the disengagement plan to Bush in April and gotten an enthusiastic endorsement, but he then went home and submitted the plan to his Likud party, which turned him down flat. The prime minister is now caught between a rock and a hard place. Israel’s much-vaunted democratic political system has rejected the unilateral disengagement, but Bush doesn’t care; he wants what he wants. And as he has signaled in a host of public and private ways, most recently through the public statements of media baron Mortimer Zuckerman, he is losing patience. If the president doesn’t get satisfaction soon, Zuckerman and others warn, Israel could find it no longer has a friend in the Oval Office.
Israel currently faces a barrage of American pressure of the sort not seen since — well, since the last Bush administration. It was in the fall of 1991, shortly after winning his own Iraq war, that the first President Bush openly confronted Israel with a demand that it stop settlement construction in the territories or face economic consequences. In response, leaders of American Jewish organizations mobilized massive protests that culminated in an ugly showdown in which Bush complained on television that he was “up against some powerful political forces.” Jewish activists took offense and turned against Bush in droves, contributing to his political downfall a year later.
How far we’ve come in a decade. Now the leaders of the Jewish organizational world are rising together, as Ori Nir reports on Page 1, to back the president and warn Israel of the consequences of disobedience. He’s the leader of the Free World, or what remains of it. And he deserves our backing. After all, they remind us repeatedly, whatever we may think of his domestic, budgetary, environmental or social policies, he is the best friend Israel has ever had in the Oval Office. That is, until he loses patience and turns away. Is that clear?
All this doesn’t make the unilateral disengagement plan a bad thing. We’ve been urging Israel to adopt something like it for close to two years. Israel’s military brass believes it will make Israel safer. The new willingness of Egypt’s President Mubarak to step in and act as guarantor for the Palestinians, making the plan less unilateral and more of a peace process, only strengthens its appeal.
But politics and political leadership need to be more than sausage-making. That’s particularly so in a voluntary universe like the Jewish community, where the appearance of dishonesty will simply cause the public to lose interest and to drift away.
The vast majority of American Jews do not sympathize with Bush (in a recent Gallup poll, only 39% of Jews said they supported him, compared with 63% of Protestants and 61% of Catholics). If the leaders of the Jewish community purport to speak for the Jewish community, they need to offer at least a glancing reflection of the values and beliefs of that community. Let them speak clearly and consistently: Support Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking because it is good for Israelis, not because it serves the cynical interests of a failing president.