"All Those Old Issues": George W. Bush and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

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VOL. 33

2003/04

No. 2
P. 36
Articles
"All Those Old Issues": George W. Bush and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
FULL TEXT

 

 

THE PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI CONFLICT AS A “MARGINAL ISSUE”

 

Barely two months into its tenure, in a little-noticed United Nations Security Council vote, the administration of President George W. Bush tipped its hand about the direction its policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would take. On 27 March 2001, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for a UN observer force to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories. Four European countries, including Britain and France, had attempted to formulate a compromise aimed at avoiding a U.S. veto, but the effort failed. The United States insisted on imposing four conditions: no mention of Israeli settlements, no use of the word “siege” to describe Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, no reference to the Fourth Geneva Convention regulating an occupying power’s conduct toward an occupied civilian population, and no mention of the land-for-peace principle embodied in UN Resolution 242. [1]

 

The four U.S. “noes” clearly revealed the Bush administration’s bias toward Israel and its fundamental reluctance to involve itself in serious mediation of the conflict. Adopting the approach first enunciated during President Bill Clinton’s first term by UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, the Bush administration justified its veto on the grounds that, because the 1993 Oslo agreement was a bilateral accord between Palestinians and Israelis, any UN or other outside involvement in issues under negotiation would constitute interference prejudging the outcome of negotiations. For similar reasons, the U.S. contended that the Geneva Convention had been rendered irrelevant by the Oslo agreement and should therefore not be invoked as a reason for opposing Israeli settlements. The Europeans, on the other hand, operated on the basis that because Israel was the occupying force and the Palestinians the occupied population, a resolution accurately defining the situation on the ground was a necessary point of leverage against Israel’s total domination of the Palestinians. [2]

 

These differences, and particularly the U.S. refusal to take into account the overwhelming imbalance of power in Israel’s favor, highlight the real reason for the failure of U.S. policy since the peace process began. The Bush administration’s position essentially re-created the myopia of the Clinton administration, which had formulated policy throughout the seven years of the Oslo process on the basis that the two sides had equal negotiating leverage. But with Israel in control of all the territory being negotiated and in possession of all the military power, and with the international community barred from intervention, the Clinton administration’s studied “neutrality” amounted to imposing whatever solution Israel desired. By its early action at the UN, the Bush team showed that it had adopted this approach, the main differences being its reluctance to become involved in mediation and its consistent subordination of the Palestinian-Israeli issue to other concerns. This latter attitude was well exemplified by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in early 2002, when she declared, alluding to U.S. priorities such as the war on terror and ousting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, that there was no time for “marginal issues” like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. [3] And because the administration’s real focus has always been elsewhere—on pursuing terrorists, preparing for war on Iraq, managing its occupation of Iraq, and attempting to “transform” the Middle East (including ensuring Israel’s regional dominance in the guise of security)— the Bush team never developed a strategy for resolving the conflict. Instead, it could only react to events—hence the Bush presidency’s catalog of “peace plans” put forward in response to international pressures and then discarded when the pressures eased or when Israel objected.

 

FOLLOWING ISRAEL: HALFHEARTED PEACEMAKING

 

Bush’s assumption of the presidency in January 2001 coincided almost exactly with Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister of Israel a few weeks later. From the outset, despite occasional mild remonstrations with Sharon, the administration has almost unquestioningly pursued the course set by the prime minister. This was evident initially in the Bush team’s effort to accommodate Sharon’s opposition to the Mitchell Plan, put forward in May 2001 by an international commission appointed by Clinton and headed by former Senator George Mitchell. Bush officials said they could not ask Sharon for a freeze on settlement activity as called for by the plan because Sharon had made clear his philosophical opposition to a settlement freeze and because his coalition government would probably fall if he agreed. Officials in Sharon’s office were reported to have celebrated when Secretary of State Colin Powell stated explicitly at a press conference, in direct contradiction to the Mitchell Plan’s call for simultaneity, that a cease-fire would have to precede a settlement freeze. The Israelis recognized this as U.S. acceptance of their demands and knew that, with this prerequisite, no serious discussion of halting settlement activity would occur. The administration then went along with Sharon’s insistence on a period of absolute quiet by the Palestinians before Israel would have to accept a cease-fire. In so doing, Bush essentially gave Israel a free hand to continue consolidating the occupation and, by holding the process hostage to any Palestinian violence (often in response to Israeli provocation), effectively thwarted all possibility of restarting negotiations. [4]

 

The administration’s concession to Sharon on the Mitchell Plan, and particularly what became a U.S.-Israeli mantra that Palestinian violence must end before substantive issues could be discussed, set the tone for all further U.S. dealings with Sharon’s government. This stipulation undermined the Tenet Plan, put forth by CIA Director George Tenet in June 2001 to end the fighting and restart Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation in order to facilitate the Mitchell Plan; it undermined General Anthony Zinni’s efforts to broker a cease-fire in November and December 2001, when a marked increase in Israeli military operations and the assassination of a key Hamas leader sparked a rash of Palestinian suicide bombings; it undermined the Saudi initiative of March 2002, later unanimously adopted by an Arab summit, which called for Arab-Israeli normalization in return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders; and ultimately it undermined the administration’s own “road map to peace” presented in mid-2003. [5]

 

The United States appeared to be launching a major initiative two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, when Bush in a November 2001 address to the UN laid out a vision of “two states—Israel and Palestine” living peacefully together. A week later, in another major speech, Powell called for an end to Israel’s occupation and promised active U.S. engagement. But in fact, the initiative was a response to pressures from British prime minister Tony Blair and the Arab states to move on the Palestinian-Israeli situation in order to ease concerns over the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Moreover, despite the apparent breakthrough represented by these speeches—this was the first time the U.S. had ever formally used the name “Palestine” and the first time since the first Bush administration that the U.S. had referred to Israel’s occupation by that name—the administration undermined its own initiative by privately assuring Israel that essentially it meant nothing. Sharon was reassured that the administration did not intend to launch an initiative, and Sharon’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, was given the clear impression that there was no peace plan behind Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state. [6]

 

Similarly, in June 2002, when Bush called for a “provisional” Palestinian state, pending negotiations on a final peace agreement, and called for the ouster of Palestinian Authority president Yasir Arafat (a “new and different Palestinian leadership”), he again limited the initiative in response to Israel’s demands and again required that terrorism stop before there could be any movement toward peace. The speech, which formed the basis for the later road map, was in fact finalized only after consultation with Israeli officials on parameters acceptable to Israel. [7]

 

The decision to bypass and replace Arafat was largely Sharon’s agenda. Bush apparently came to detest Arafat early on and never received him at the White House, despite hosting the Israeli leader several times. But Sharon’s portrayal of Arafat as “Israel’s Usama Bin Laden” after September 11 brought into greater focus Bush’s hostility to the Palestinian leader. Continued Palestinian suicide bombings and Israel’s capture of the Karine A, a ship carrying arms to the Palestinians, in January 2002 further soured Bush. Other senior policymakers, particularly Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, pressed for Arafat’s isolation, and by early 2002 only Powell was pressing the administration to continue dealing with Arafat as the democratically elected head of a government. In June 2002, however, Bush voted with the hawks in his cabinet—and with Sharon—and ordered U.S. diplomats never to talk with Arafat again. [8]

 

Almost a year passed—a year in which the United States planned and launched a major war against Iraq—before Bush again turned to peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israel. In large measure because he and his policymakers had made so much of the fact that the war would “transform” the Middle East and facilitate a Palestinian-Israeli solution, Bush felt compelled— much as his father had in 1991 after the first Gulf War—to devote attention to the conflict after the hostilities in Iraq ended. He was also under some pressure to restart peace efforts in order to repay Britain’s Blair for his politically risky support of the war. It was thus that in late April 2003, Bush finally officially launched the road map to peace.

 

But the history of the road map is again the story of an opportunity bypassed. The plan had been drafted months earlier, in September 2002, by the Quartet (made up of the European Union, Russia, and the UN, in addition to the United States as represented by the State Department) using Bush’s June 2002 speech as a guideline. After the initial drafting, the administration had compelled the Quartet to accept a redraft accommodating Israel’s objections. The Bush team then rejected Quartet demands to finalize a road map draft at the end of the year, citing continued strong Israeli objections as well as the need to wait until after Israeli elections in January 2003 and the impending war in Iraq. [9]

 

Once the road map was launched, Bush did virtually nothing to ensure Israel’s compliance with the plan’s demands—largely because of his poor understanding of the issues involved, his reluctance to confront Sharon, and intense domestic political pressure from supporters of Israel. Most of the administration’s pressure aimed at securing implementation of the plan was exerted on the Palestinians—to choose a new leadership, to control violence by militant Islamic organizations, and so on—while no effort was made to stop Israel’s expanding control over the occupied territories. [10] Particularly with regard to the “separation wall” that Israel is constructing in the West Bank, the administration demonstrated that it is unprepared to confront Sharon. After threatening a reduction in promised loan guarantees if Israel extended the wall deep into the West Bank to encompass the settlement of Ariel, the U.S. failed to follow through when Sharon forged ahead with only slightly altered building plans.

 

BUSH’S INNER CIRCLE: SUPERFICIAL UNDERSTANDING AND LESS INTEREST

 

In the end, the road map failed because its conception was flawed. Because it was written ultimately for Israel’s benefit, it allowed Israel to continue colonizing the occupied territories while prohibiting any Palestinian resistance. The administration’s fixation on Arafat and its obsession with terrorism—both of which predate September 11 but were magnified by it—blinded it from the outset to the true root of the conflict. Rice’s frequent observation that “to get the context right” violence must end before issues like Israeli settlements could be addressed exemplifies the administration view. [11] Constant reiterations of this theme ignore the reality that it is Israel’s occupation that leads to Palestinian terrorism, rather than the other way around.

 

Bush and many of his senior aides in fact have a remarkably superficial understanding of the situation on the ground and even less interest in the issues. The administration viewpoint is based on the simplistic notions that Palestinian violence is the source of all problems, that the occupation and other outstanding issues will somehow resolve themselves if violence ends, and that the Palestinians’ grievances arise principally from their own leadership rather than from Israeli policies. The administration is collectively uninterested in the impact of the occupation on Palestinians: the extent of ongoing land confiscation and the permanence of the stunning transformation of the Palestinian landscape by expanding settlements, roads, and the separation wall; the level of destruction in cities and towns; the impact of restrictions on movement; the degree of poverty and economic devastation; the absence of liberty; and destruction of hopes for nationhood.

 

Bush himself has been described as totally dismissive of the intricacies of Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking, brushing off the most fundamental aspects of the conflict—the placement of borders, the disposition of settlements, the status of Jerusalem, etc.—as “all those old issues.” He is said to believe that the parties themselves can work out these details without much intervention from the United States, which instead of following the “old approach” should focus on Palestinian reform. [12] This impatience with complex issues makes him highly manipulable by those around him who have long wanted to impede serious peace negotiations and leads to critical misunderstanding: he reportedly believes, for example, that Israel’s investment in settlement expansion is a waste of money because eventually these will be turned over to the Palestinians—apparently not appreciating either Sharon’s oft-stated refusal to consider dismantlement or the determination even by Labor governments to retain most of the settlements. Moreover, with regard to the occupation as a whole, Bush appears to believe that its worst consequence for the Palestinians is humiliation at checkpoints. In a speech in April 2002, a week into Israel’s month long siege of the West Bank, Bush called on Israel to “be compassionate at checkpoints and border crossings, sparing innocent Palestinians daily humiliation.” [13] At a time when Israel was systematically destroying the municipal infrastructure of every West Bank town and city, killing large numbers of Palestinian civilians, and leveling hundreds of Palestinian homes and businesses, Bush’s call for “compassion” at checkpoints, without questioning why they existed or indeed why the occupation existed, seriously minimized the Palestinian situation and missed the point of the conflict altogether. Nor did Bush appear to grasp the absurdity of labeling Sharon a “man of peace” even while his Operation Defensive Shield was continuing at full tilt.

 

Bush clearly knows little about the Palestinian situation. Aides say he never watches television and is completely unaware of what happens on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza. On at least one occasion, he was reportedly moved by the plight of the Palestinian people after Saudi crown prince Abdallah, during an April 2002 meeting with Bush at Crawford Ranch, showed photos of dead and wounded Palestinians. Bush was apparently genuinely shocked and, from his uncomplicated perspective, may believe that more compassion by Israel and less terrorism by Palestinians are all that is necessary to resolve the conflict. Bush’s pro-Israeli aides reportedly shield him from the grim details of the Palestinian plight, presumably in order to avoid arousing more sympathy for the Palestinians. [14]

 

The more cynical senior members of the administration, who know better, do not care what is happening on the ground. Many of these policymakers, particularly Cheney and Rumsfeld, have worked together for more than a decade to develop a strategy designed to advance U.S. global hegemony, and partnership with Israel fits neatly into this policy. In the cold, unemotional worldview where raw power is paramount, Israel and its readiness to use its military strength are definite assets, while scruples concerning the human costs and the sanctity of international law are liabilities. The legitimacy of Palestinian concerns and the Palestinian perspective on the conflict have no place in this vision. Rumsfeld’s dismissive characterization, during a 2002 meeting of Pentagon employees, of the occupied territories as the “so-called occupied area” is a pointed indicator of the administration’s indifference to the root of the conflict and the occupation’s consequences for Palestinians. Cheney’s strategic impulses are identical to Rumsfeld’s. Rice’s disdainful view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as marginal compared to “larger” issues like Iraq places her in this hawkish camp as well.

 

If there is an odd man out in this picture, it is Powell. He has exerted some moderating influence on his harder-driving colleagues, and his State Department has exhibited a more nuanced understanding of the issues than the rest of the administration. Bush’s statements supporting Palestinian statehood and the administration’s reintroduction of the word “occupation” into the vocabulary of the conflict probably originated there. Nonetheless, Powell has not been forceful enough and does not appear deeply enough committed to his own somewhat measured approach to apply more than an occasional brake on hawkish administration moves. Nor, in fact, do his basic policy impulses significantly differ from those of the rest of the administration, and he seems not to disagree fundamentally with the principal thrust of Bush administration foreign policy favoring unilateralism and the use of preemptive military force to achieve global domination. [16] Specifically with regard to Palestinian Israeli issues, despite persistent reports of discord within the administration, most inside sources assert that ultimately there is “not much light” between Powell and his colleagues, [17] and he has acceded in virtually every instance to Israel’s demands and the policy dictates of the hard-liners in the administration. The differences that do exist appear to involve tactics more than substance. Powell’s ineffectualness in the Palestinian-Israeli arena has led to his near universal dismissal as a serious player in the administration: Palestinians have little faith in his ability (or desire) to achieve greater balance in negotiations; Israeli supporters in the administration and Congress know that he can be ignored; and Sharon and his aides, irritated by Powell’s occasional criticisms of Israeli actions, regularly bypass him and take their concerns directly to Rice and her staff, characterized by Sharon as the most receptive White House aides encountered in many years. [18]

 

NEOCONS AS POLICYMAKERS

 

While much of the administration is either ignorant or indifferent when it comes to the realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one group with a critical impact on Middle East policy formulation has a very clear understanding of, and especially a strong sense of purpose with regard to, the issue. The so-called neoconservatives (or “neocons”) are a highly ideological group of pro-Israeli policy analysts who have been working together more or less since the administration of President Ronald Reagan and whose objective for years has been to overturn the peace process. Long before entering the Bush administration, they had formulated and solidified a hawkish policy that openly favored the Israeli right wing, disdaining the peace process because it required concessions by Israel and rejecting any political rights for the Palestinians. They provide a critical policy impetus for the Bush administration’s pro-Israeli stance.

 

The neoconservatives take their name from the fact that the movement’s founders had originally been leftists but in the 1960s and 1970s moved sharply to the right on foreign policy issues. Their principal concern at the height of the cold war was that a complacent United States had let down its guard against advances by the Soviet Union and needed to strengthen itself militarily and politically. Israel, which the neocons initially regarded as an essential barrier to Soviet inroads in the Middle East, has always played a central role in neoconservative thinking. Palestinians, on the other hand, were regarded during the cold war as tools of the Soviets and are still viewed as a threat to Israel’s existence.

 

Today’s leading neocons are a closely interlocking network of intellectuals who sprang from the same political and intellectual mentors, have worked together for years to formulate political strategy, have served together on the boards of multiple hawkish, pro-Israeli think tanks, and today work together from positions inside and on the periphery of government to advance a militant foreign policy agenda. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who until a financial scandal headed the Defense Policy Board, an influential Defense Department advisory body on which he still serves, are the leaders of today’s neoconservative policymakers. Both are proteges of the late Senator Henry Jackson, a Washington-state Democrat and cold war hawk who was a strong supporter of Israel. Wolfowitz and Perle in turn are the mentors of Douglas Feith, who serves under Wolfowitz as undersecretary of defense for policy, and of Lewis Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff. Elliott Abrams—another protege of Senator Jackson and a vocal neoconservative—has directed Middle East affairs, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, on the National Security Council staff since late 2002. [19]

 

Wolfowitz, widely regarded as the dean of the self-described “cabal” that directs policy just below cabinet level, has been circumspect about his personal views on Israel and the Palestinians, but one source inside the administration describes him as “over-the-top crazy when it comes to Israel.” [20] Perle is much more an open book. His record of support for right-wing Israeli positions goes back at least to the 1970s, when he worked as a Senate staffer, and his position on the Defense Policy Board has given him a venue for pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian advocacy with this administration. In a September 2002 briefing to Pentagon officials on the shape of the Middle East in the aftermath of a war in Iraq, he displayed a graphic allotting all of Palestine to Israel and labeling Jordan as Palestine. [21]

 

Feith is probably the most prolific among the group of currently serving neocons who have written extensively on the Palestinian-Israeli situation over the years. Since the late 1970s, Feith has seldom if ever deviated from a basic position that opposes territorial compromise by Israel, regards the land-for-peace concept as a step toward Israel’s destruction, believes the Palestinians have no legal rights in Palestine, and believes that the only legitimate location for a Palestinian state is Jordan. [22] In 1996, Feith and Perle were among several authors of a strategy paper issued by an Israeli think tank for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Entitled “A Clean Break,” the paper advocated breaking away from the peace process and specifically its land-for-peace component.

 

In an indication of policy to come, the authors also argued for loosening Arafat’s “exclusive grip on Palestinian society.” Still another harbinger of future policy was the paper’s urging of an aggressive pursuit of Syria and Iraq and its prediction that “redefining Iraq” would transform the entire Middle East. The paper called for “weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria” and advocated regime change in Iraq, calling the ouster of Saddam Hussein “an important Israeli strategic objective.” [23]

 

Several pro-Israeli neoconservatives on the periphery of the administration also play influential roles in policy. William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, is a founder and present chairman of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), formed in 1997 to promote the advancement of U.S. power around the world. It is testimony to PNAC’s and Kristol’s influence with the Bush administration that several of the signatories of a 1998 PNAC letter to Clinton advocating unilateral U.S. action against Iraq now serve in the Bush administration, including Cheney and Rumsfeld. [24]

 

More than during any previous administration, Washington think tanks play a key role in Bush administration policy-making. These proliferating policy institutes are linked to each other by overlapping membership lists and provide a constant stream of hawkish policy advice. In an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in February 2003, Bush thanked AEI for providing twenty of its scholars for service in his administration. [25] AEI is heavily larded with strong right-wing supporters of Israel, counting among its scholars and fellows Perle, neocon founder Irving Kristol (father of William Kristol), longtime neocon and former Reagan administration official Michael Ledeen, and Reagan’s UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick. [26]

 

In terms of influence on administration policy-making on Palestinian-Israeli issues, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) may be the most important organization. JINSA defines its principal purpose as to “inform the American defense and foreign affairs community about the important role Israel can and does play in bolstering democratic interests in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.” Cheney, Feith, and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, an AEI and Reagan administration alumnus long associated with the neoconservatives, served on its board until they entered the Bush administration. Perle is still on its board. Several other JINSA members serve at various levels of the Defense Department. [27]

 

Unlike their influential subordinates, none of the senior policymakers in this administration—neither Cheney, Rice, Powell, nor Rumsfeld—is a neoconservative in the strict sense of the term. But the difference is merely semantic. With rare exceptions, the administration speaks with one voice on foreign policy matters, and it is a conservative, aggressive voice. The specifics and the general direction of policy are formulated by the pro-Israeli neocon theorists at the subcabinet level and readily endorsed and carried out by a senior national security team that has also, like the more junior neocons, worked together at least since the Reagan years and shares the same political outlook. Indeed, the entire security team, from lower-level Defense Department desk officers up to Cheney, is so closely knit, and has long been so singly focused on the advancement of U.S. global and Israeli regional dominance, that it is usually impossible to determine whether the impetus for a specific policy position originates with the neoconservatives around Wolfowitz and Perle, or with Cheney and Rumsfeld themselves.

 

CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALIST PRESSURES

 

The increasingly strong and vocal Christian fundamentalist movement also has a profound influence on Bush and his policymakers, providing a strong religious and political rationale for backing Israel’s retention of the occupied territories that dovetails neatly with the policy impetus provided by the neoconservatives. The Christian fundamentalist Right, whose vision of the future involves biblical prophecies of Jewish control over all of Palestine as a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Christ, first gained strength during the Reagan administration with the rise of organizations such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Predominant in the so-called Bible Belt in the south, the Christian Right as a whole claims, probably with only slight exaggeration, a following of 70 million, nearly one-fourth of the American population.

 

Bush is a self-described born-again Christian who is open to, if not wholly a subscriber to, the Christian fundamentalist vision of the future; his assumption of the presidency has given the movement a sense of its own power that has fueled its political activism. The Right’s support for and preexisting bias toward an Israel led by Likud were enhanced by the widespread outrage experienced by Americans after the September 11 attacks and the sense—heavily promoted by the Israeli government—that Israel and the United States are now equally victims of terrorism and share the burden of combating it. Attorney General John Ashcroft, himself an evangelical Christian, told a gathering of fundamentalist Christians and Jews in April 2003 that “Israel was among those countries most capable of understanding our national pain and our national thirst for justice” after September 11. Ashcroft praised Israel for remaining “steadfastly true,” in the face of frequent terrorist threats, to “the values our two nations share.” [28]

 

Probably the most important factor accounting for the particular rise of the Christian Right in recent years has been the extent to which its views coincide with the neoconservative philosophy prevailing within the Bush administration. In the wake of the “war on terror” and the administration’s increasingly militaristic policy in the Middle East, the Christian fundamentalists’ anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian beliefs, already present in some form, have taken on a new virulence and seeming credibility. The bond between the Christian fundamentalists and American Jews on the right makes for an unlikely alliance, since the Christian movement’s vision of the so-called End of Days foresees the destruction of most Jews and the conversion of those remaining. But for the present, the bond flourishes for tactical reasons: the Christian Right needs Israel in its present configuration for its millenarian beliefs to be fulfilled, while right-wing Jews recognize the benefit of a large and powerful Christian body enthusiastically backing Israel’s continued control of the occupied territories. In a 1997 book, Elliott Abrams explicitly urged Jews to put aside concerns about the evangelical Christians’ beliefs on the grounds that the pro-Israel lobby greatly benefits from their support. [29]

 

The September 11 terrorism and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have fueled Christian fundamentalist hopes that the biblical scenario of Armageddon and the End of Days (in which a resurgent and powerful Israel plays a key role) is at hand. The anticipation of future wars against Syria, Iran, and North Korea only strengthens this vision. This promise of biblical fulfillment, as well as fears that the Bush administration might interfere with the biblical vision by forcing Israel to cede land, have galvanized the Christian Right to new levels of activism. Christian tourists are visiting the occupied territories in large numbers, making a point of visiting Israeli settlements. New organizations are emerging. A group called Stand for Israel, founded in 2002 by Christian and Orthodox Jewish activists, calls itself a Christian version of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). One of the organization’s founders has boasted that whenever the U.S. tries to exert pressure on Israel, “that’s where we press the button and mobilize the troops.” When, during the Israeli siege of the West Bank in April 2002, Bush called on Israel to withdraw immediately, Christian leaders organized their followers to dispatch 100,000 email messages to the White House. Bush backed off. [30]

 

Indeed, on matters related to Israel, the Christian fundamentalist bloc may be as politically influential today as the pro-Israel lobby. One fundamentalist organizer believes his people are potentially the most effective force influencing any foreign policy issue and are “shifting the center of gravity” among supporters of Israel from their traditional liberal Democratic locus to a more conservative and Republican place on the political spectrum. [31] The evidence seems to bear out this assessment.

 

Some members of Congress are fundamentalists themselves and espouse the Christian Right’s fervid support for Israel and the occupation. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey told a television interviewer in May 2002 that he was “not content to give up any part of Israel for the purpose of a Palestinian state” and that Palestinians should be removed from the occupied territories. [32] Armey’s successor, Tom DeLay, has fiercely defended Israel against any pressures to make concessions or even to negotiate with Palestinians. As a congressional leader and a vocal conservative, DeLay speaks for the vast majority of the political and Christian Right when he holds forth on Israel. In June 2003, when Bush said he was “troubled” by Israel’s assassination attempt against Hamas leader ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Rantisi just as the U.S. was launching the road map to peace, DeLay met privately with Bush aides and threatened political action if the administration continued to criticize Israel. Under heavy pressure from both Christian conservatives and the American Jewish community, who also expressed their displeasure with Bush at a White House dinner the day after the attack, Bush again backed off, acknowledging that his criticism of Israel had been “counterproductive.” He never repeated the criticism, despite several other Israeli attacks in Gaza within days of the Rantisi attack. [33]

 

The Christian Right has enormous political power and, perhaps more than in any previous administration, is a critical part of the domestic political equation on Palestinian-Israeli matters. Politics looms over every aspect of administration thinking on the conflict and reinforces its pro-Israeli tilt at every level. Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, a skilled political strategist, has closely guided Bush’s dealings with both Sharon and Arafat with an eye to the domestic impact. When Bush’s generally good relations with Sharon have been marred by occasional mild disagreement, Rove has advised against directly confronting the Israeli leader because of the fallout this might have for Bush’s support among American Jews and Christian conservatives. In addition, in early 2002, in the days before Bush severed all administration contact with Arafat, Rove warned Bush that dealing with the Palestinian leader was causing a Republican slippage in opinion polls—something seen as critical at the time with congressional elections approaching at the end of the year. At the current juncture, with presidential elections looming and many of Bush’s key political constituencies strongly opposed to any U.S. pressure on Israel, Bush and his political handlers undoubtedly see a vigorous effort to press ahead with the road map or any other peace plan as too great a political liability. [34]

 

This reluctance is undoubtedly reinforced by personal factors, notably Bush’s determination not to repeat the “mistake” he believes cost his father his bid for reelection in 1992—losing support of Jewish voters because of his unprecedented pressure on Israel to stop settlement building. [35] Although it is doubtful in fact that the elder Bush would have won significant Jewish support in 1992 no matter what his policies toward Israel, Bush the son seems from the beginning to have had the Jewish vote in mind in formulating his own policies. He is a more political animal than his father, he is far readier to accommodate conservative interests, and, with specific regard to Palestinian-Israeli issues, he is much more attuned to Israel, both emotionally and politically.

 

MINIMALISM AS POLICY

 

In an address to the annual AIPAC conference in March 2001, Powell announced that the Bush administration stood ready to “assist, not insist” in efforts to restart a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue. In what the State Department described as a “minimalist” approach, Powell made no mention of a “peace process” at all. [36] A few peace proposals, hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli deaths, a horrific terrorist incident in the United States, and two major wars later, this minimalism—essentially amounting to U.S. endorsement of any course of action Israel chooses—still stands as official Bush administration policy.

 

It may not be an exaggeration to say that no previous U.S. administration has begun a term with policy direction on Palestinian-Israeli issues already so firmly set as that of the younger President Bush. Whereas previous presidents started out with policy-making teams that appeared to have no more than a general sense of where they were headed, Bush appointed a group of advisers with a set of policy goals formulated years before and virtually cast in concrete. The clarity, cohesion, and determination of these individuals were highly unusual, as was their determination to press a militaristic policy advancing U.S. global and Israeli regional hegemony. Bush himself, although he came to office with definite conservative and evangelical Christian inclinations, was less substantively knowledgeable and therefore more susceptible to efforts by his policymakers to shape his thinking than had been true of most previous presidents.

 

The basic reality of the Bush administration with regard to Israel is that it is not opposed on principle to bald territorial aggrandizement and therefore, unlike other recent administrations, is not opposed on principle to Israel’s bald retention of the occupied territories or its destruction of Palestinian national aspirations. Power and its assertion around the world, by and on behalf of the United States and its closest allies, provide the principal impetus for this administration’s policy. With respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there are few pressures or constraints that might push the administration away from its total embrace of Israel, as both an emotional ally and a regional power, or move it toward a more modulated position taking into account Palestinian as well as Israeli concerns. Bush policymakers are seldom moved by questions of justice or the constraints of international law. At the same time, they appear greatly impressed by force as a political instrument. Like Sharon’s government itself, the Bush team does not appear to consider the possibility that an escalating Palestinian-Israeli conflict and continued oppression of Palestinians could have the effect of encouraging rather than discouraging further terrorism against both the United States and Israel.

 

Bush resumed his tentative pursuit of peace by launching the road map in 2003 because, in his worldview and that of the neoconservatives who influence him, this seemed the next logical step in the “transformation” of the Middle East envisioned to follow the war in Iraq—a transformation designed in large part to ensure Israel’s regional hegemony by removing any threat from the Palestinians and other Arabs. Bush may also have believed unrealistically that the road map would bring an easy success and, with it, considerable political capital for himself.

 

But because Bush and his policymakers have never fully appreciated the scope of the problem, they badly misjudged the difficulties of peacemaking. They seriously underestimated the domestic political costs of pursuing even a relatively toothless plan like the road map, and they have been completely unwilling to make the demands on Israel that a serious process would require. Bush is neither personally inclined nor politically free to exert the kind of pressure on Sharon that could produce a meaningful and lasting peace settlement giving the Palestinians a truly independent, viable, and sovereign state not totally surrounded and dominated by Israel. With an election approaching, the subordination of policy to politics will be even more entrenched, and the forces that carry the day will be the political lobbies—Christian fundamentalist as well as pro-Israeli—that are prepared to make support for Israel’s right-wing government and its uncompromising policies an election issue for Bush. Nor do any of the serious Democratic presidential candidates exert a countervailing pressure on Bush; there is in fact no Democratic Party voice, either among the candidates or in Congress, ready to raise the least challenge to Bush on this issue. In the end, neither Bush nor anyone currently on the political scene seems to recognize or care that peace plans selectively implemented cannot possibly bring real peace between Palestinians and Israel.

 

 

 

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Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) 2nd ed. and The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story (Santa Fe: Sunlit Hills Press, 2002).

 

1. Amira Hass, “Four U.S. Rejections Scuttled Security Council Resolution,” Ha’Aretz, 13 April 2001; Colum Lynch, “U.S. Vetoes U.N. Observer Force to Protect Palestinians,” Washington Post, 28 March 2001.

 

2. Hass, “Four U.S. Rejections.”

 

3. Aluf Benn, “U.S. Concerned about Palestinian Plight,” Ha’Aretz, 18 February 2002.

 

4. Jane Perlez, “U.S. Gingerly Considers More Active Role in Mideast,” New York Times, 17 May 2001; Aluf Benn, “An American Peace Proposal, Kind Of,” Ha’Aretz, 22 May 2001.

 

5. For a narrative chronology of events surrounding the Mitchell, Tenet, and Zinni missions, see Michele L. Kjorlien, “Peace Monitor: 16 May–15 August 2001,” JPS 31, no. 1 (Autumn 2001), pp. 103–108, and Michele K. Esposito, “Quarterly Update on Conflict and Diplomacy: 16 November 2001–15 February 2002,” JPS 31, no. 3 (Spring 2002), pp. 118–20.

 

6. Serge Schmemann, “U.S. Indicates Fresh Resolve to Mediate a Mideast Peace,” New York Times, 12 November 2001; Akiva Eldar, “Focus: Now Everyone Has Accepted a Palestinian State,” Ha’Aretz, 11 November 2001.

 

7. Glenn Kessler, “Framework for Peace Tough on Palestinians,” Washington Post, 25 June 2002.

 

8. Glenn Kessler, “Bush Sticks to the Broad Strokes,” Washington Post, 3 June 2003.

 

9. Michele K. Esposito, “Quarterly Update on Conflict and Diplomacy: 16 August–15 November 2002,” JPS 32, no. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 121, 124, 139, and “Quarterly Update: 16 November 2002–15 February 2003,” JPS 32, no. 3 (Spring 2003), pp. 121–22, 124, 135.

 

10. Although Bush’s June 2002 speech was widely criticized in the U.S. media as a one-sided plan that set few demands for Israel and placed virtually all the burden for movement on the Palestinians (see, for instance, “Editorial: Palestinians’ Empty Pinata,” ˜ Christian Science Monitor, 26 June 2002; Kessler, “Framework for Peace”; “Editorial: An Uncertain Road Map,” Washington Post, 25 June 2002), virtually no one criticized the road map when it was released ten months later.

 

11. Nathan Guttman, Shlomo Shamir, and Daniel Sobelman, “U.S. Calls for PA Reform, But Insists on Arafat,” Ha’Aretz, 6 May 2002.

 

12. Kessler, “Bush Sticks to the Broad Strokes.”

 

13. Transcript of Bush statement, New York Times, 4 April 2002.

 

14. Elsa Walsh, “The Prince,” New Yorker, 24 March 2003, p. 61.

 

15. Barbara Slavin, “Rumsfeld View Veers from Mideast Policy,” USA Today, 7 August 2002.

 

16. David Armstrong, “Dick Cheney’s Song of America,” Harper’s Magazine, October 2002, pp. 76–80.

 

17. Kathleen Christison, “Who’s Behind U.S. Middle East Policy?” Middle East International, 8 March 2002, p. 23.

 

18. Uri Dan, “Sharon Led Team Bush on Secret ‘Peace’ Tour,” New York Post, 19 May 2003; Steven R. Weisman, “A Sense of Harmony Felt within Diplomatic Circles,” New York Times, 27 June 2003.

 

19. For a description of the theoretical basis of neocon thinking, see James Atlas, “A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders,” New York Times, 4 May 2003. For a review of neocons, where they sit in the Bush administration, and their ties to Israel, see Jason Vest, “The Men from JINSA and CSP,” Nation, 2 September 2002, http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20020902&s=vest and Christison, “Who’s Behind.”

 

20. Information from an administration source who asked to remain anonymous, cited in Christison, “Who’s Behind.”

 

21. Akiva Eldar, “Perles of Wisdom for the Feithful,” Ha’Aretz, 1 October 2002.

 

22. James J. Zogby, Arab American Institute, “A Dangerous Appointment,” 16 April 2001, http://www.aaiusa.org/wwatch/041601.htm and “New Questions about Feith,” 13 May 2001, http://www.aaiusa.org/wwatch/051301.htm.

 

23. Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy toward 2000, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” 1996, http://www.israeleconomy.org/strat1.htm. Also among the authors of this report were David Wurmser, who until recently served as assistant to Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton and in September 2003 moved to Vice President Cheney’s office, and Wurmser’s wife, Meyrav, an Israeli who is a scholar at the Hudson Institute and is a cofounder of the stridently anti-Arab media watch Web site MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute).

 

24. “The Plan: Were Neoconservatives’ 1998 Memos a Blueprint for Iraq War?” 10 March 2003, http://abcnews.go.com/ sections/nightline/DailyNews/pnac 030310.html.

 

25. White House Press Office, “President Discusses the Future of Iraq,” transcript of Bush speech to the American Enterprise Institute, 26 February 2003.

 

26. Vest, “The Men from JINSA and CSP.”

 

27. Ibid.

 

28. Alan Cooperman, “Israel True to Values, Ashcroft Says,” Washington Post, 3 April 2003.

 

29. Elliott Abrams, Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America (New York: The Free Press, 1997), p. 69.

 

30. “Zion’s Christian Soldiers: The ‘60 Minutes’ Transcript,” 6 October 2002, in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2002, pp. 68–69; Akiva Eldar, “An Unholy Alliance with the Christian Right,” Ha’Aretz, 8 April 2003; David Firestone, “Evangelical Christians and Jews Unite for Israel,” New York Times, 9 June 2002.

 

31. Firestone, “Evangelical Christians and Jews.”

 

32. Hardball with Chris Matthews, MSNBC, transcript, 1 May 2002.

 

33. James Bennet, “The Exit That Isn’t on Bush’s ‘Road Map,’” New York Times, 18 May 2003; Edwin Chen, “Hawks Rip into Mideast Plan,” Los Angeles Times, 23 April 2003; Dana Milbank, “Bush’s Shift on Israel Was Swift,” Washington Post, 21 June 2003.

 

34. Alan Sipress, “A Grudging U.S. Policy: Reluctance Has Resulted in Sporadic, Superficial Engagement,” Washington Post, 31 March 2002; Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus, “Crises Strain Bush Policies,” Washington Post, 21 April 2002; Dana Milbank and Alan Cooperman, “Bush Takes Quiet Step toward Peace,” Washington Post, 1 May 2003.

 

35. Richard L. Berke, “Political Memo: Bush Shapes His Presidency with Sharp Eye on Father’s,” New York Times, 28 March 2001.

 

36. Jane Perlez, “Powell Stresses Responsibility of Mideast Foes,” New York Times, 20 March 2001.