Friday, February 18, 2005

Israel As A Messenger Boy

It's easy to understand conservative Jewish enthusiasm for President Bush. There is a high degree of ideological congruence on social issues that is reinforced by an overt attitude toward religion that has not been seen at the White House since the place was built. Unlike his father, George W. Bush has said all the right things about Israel - providing support in the UN, isolating Yasir Arafat, and resisting European pressure for a harsher approach to the Jewish state.

There is, however, more to the picture. Mr. Bush is a master at delivering a message and this is a key to his success. He knows instinctively that rhetoric determines perception and perception is more potent than action. Inevitably, this means a disconnect between words and deeds, as is too often evident in the domestic sphere when with his trademark grin and wink he says things that are at odds with what is occurring on the ground. There is a similar process in Middle East policy, although Jews who are in the President's corner seem not to notice the problem.

As an important example, there are the current Israel-Palestinian negotiations. American Jews who back Prime Minister Sharon's policies are overwhelmingly anti-George Bush, while those who are tearing their hair out over plans to leave Gaza and to give up more of the West Bank and release additional Palestinian prisoners are American Jews who are rabidly pro-Bush. This makes political sense only if the U.S. is a bystander as Israeli policies unfold. But nothing can be further from the truth. The State Department quite openly - as in Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice's remarks during a recent Middle East visit - and the White House far more covertly have relentlessly pushed Israel to make further territorial concessions and to release prisoners with blood on their hands. Tellingly, the Bush Administration has not supported Mr. Sharon's security wall.

It's not sufficient to say that politics begets strange bedfellows. For most American Jews, there is the understandable explanation that they can support the President when they agree with him. If only because they assert that Mr. Sharon is recklessly endangering Israel, conservative Jews cannot shrug off Washington's Middle East policy by saying that this is an area where they disagree with the President. From their standpoint, too much is at stake.

What is at work is the dialectic of friendship, of Israel being subjected to greater U.S. pressure and less capable of resisting precisely because of the close relationship between the two countries. We see a similar process in ordinary relationships, as we are less able to say no to friends than to persons who are more distant. Friendship breeds expectations and also the inability to escape situations that one would like to avoid. When the White House invites Mr. Sharon for meetings with Mr. Abbas, the invitation is something of an order and the Prime Minister cannot readily demur, though he knows that he will be asked to make additional concessions.

From its earliest days in 1948, Israel has had what is frequently referred to as "a special relationship" with the U.S. Whatever benefits are derived from this - and there have been plenty - there is the flip side of subservience. The present situation is different and more dangerous because Iraq and Iran have priority on the White House's Middle East agenda, which means that to an extent Israel is hostage to how this country's policy makers view America's national interests.

Iraq illustrates the point. The emergence of a Shi'ite government in Baghdad may be good for the U.S. But it is not good news for Israel. Those who do not understand this do not know where Iraq is located on the map. One day, the U.S. will be out of Iraq. Israel obviously must remain in the neighborhood.

Iran is at least as worrisome, if only because of the Iran-Iraq Shi'ite linkage. There have been reports of a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, a notion that is preposterous and ultra-dangerous. Along comes Vice President Dick Cheney who says, "If, in fact, the Israelis become convinced the Iranians had a significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."

This is scary stuff, more so because hardly a word of protest has been heard from our major organizations. Is Israel the U.S.'s messenger boy? Is what's good for America always good for Israel? Are we to ignore the painful reality that a further stirring up of the Islamic world is a clear and present danger to Israel? Who will clear up the mess in the Middle East if things get out of hand?

The too-close relationship between Mr. Sharon and the White House is problematic. Israel is further forfeiting its sovereignty when it does the bidding of the Bush Administration. Of course, the President does not want to hurt Israel. But foremost on his mind is what he can do to achieve his goals in Iran and Iraq. No one can know the outcome of aggressive U.S. Middle East action. We do know that if things go wrong, Israel will be endangered.

I have for years favored a Gaza pull-out and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Gaza is a huge challenge but before Mr. Sharon goes further he needs to assess whether his concessions have brought about the hoped-for benefits. Hamas and other terrorist groups have signaled that any cease-fire is a temporary expedient as the primary goal remains the destruction of Israel. Mr. Sharon needs to tell the Bush Administration that he cannot yield more now. Put otherwise, he needs to recognize that a friendship that has become too cozy may turn Israel into a messenger boy.