On April 3, a high-octane collection of thirty-three conservatives sent George W. Bush a letter urging him to lend Washington’s “full support to Israel as it seeks to root out the [Palestinian] terrorist network.” These hawks–including William Kristol, William Bennett, Rich Lowry, Martin Peretz and Richard Perle–called on Bush not to force Israel to negotiate with Yasir Arafat and to “accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein.” They wanted Bush to adopt Israel’s offensive as part of his war on terrorism and let Ariel Sharon roll. The next day, Bush replied, sort of, by declaring that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. He slammed Arafat, but his aides noted that negotiations should resume, perhaps before a complete cease-fire has been achieved.
The hawks were not pleased. Bush’s actions were “a show of weakness,” says Marshall Wittmann, a signatory to the crush-them-now letter. Other parts of the hard-line pro-Israel coalition were disheartened. The Anti-Defamation League complained, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee protested, “It is no more appropriate to place a time limit on Israel’s acts of self-defense than on America’s acts in its own defense.” Christian right supporters of Israel–many of whom believe that God granted Israel to the Jews and that Jewish control of Israel is a prelude to the Second Coming–had reason to be disappointed. The Rev. Jerry Falwell stated, “I believe Israel must aggressively defend its borders.” Americans for Peace Now, however, praised Bush’s new stance.
So Bush frustrated key elements of his support base and won huzzahs from peaceniks (even as he winked at Sharon’s continuing operations). How did this come to pass? It was not because of domestic pressure. Democrats criticized Bush for not addressing the crisis, but that didn’t mean they wanted Bush to lean on Israel. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, for example, said, “I don’t know that the Israeli government has any choice but to be as aggressive as they are.” Senator Joe Lieberman remarked, “I believe strongly we should not ask Israelis to stop their war against terrorists until they have achieved greater homeland security.” As Bush was pondering what to do, I contacted the Progressive Caucus of the House–no Bush friends there–and asked a spokeswoman if the group was responding to the crisis. “No,” she said. Why not? “I don’t know.” Few if any Democrats were deviating from an Israel-first line. Before heading to the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked that he cared as much about Palestinian rights as Israel’s security–a sentiment not echoed by lawmakers, Democratic or Republican.
“All the political pressure is on the side of the pro-Israel lobby,” says Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. A staffer to a Congressman who occasionally voices concern for Palestinians notes, “There are not many of us in Congress.” In fact, there are almost none, hardly enough for Bush to worry about. Kristol and neocon writer Robert Kagan claim that Bush caved because he “could not withstand a few days of heckling from the European Union and the New York Times.” But once pressure from home and abroad forced a reluctant Bush into action, it could well be that he saw little choice but to press for Israeli restraint and negotiations, for the other option was to back Sharon’s offensive. That would have risked rifts between Washington and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, undermining Bush’s war on terrorism (and his designs on Saddam Hussein).
Hawkish backers of Israel are nervously watching how far Bush will go to rein in Sharon and restart negotiations. They vividly recall that Bush I opposed $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in an effort to force Israel to halt settlements in the West Bank. “There is a division within my camp,” says Wittmann. “One school wants to cut the President slack for now, and the other believes Bush is already down the road of policy incoherence.” Wittmann is hoping Bush’s current stance is “ad-hocism, that his actions come from a desire to impose order upon chaos and out of a fear of destabilization in the Arab world. I’m not divining a long-term foreign policy message out of his handling of the current crisis–not yet.”
Bush has not threatened to reconsider the fundamentals of US-Israel relations–such as $3 billion in annual assistance to Israel. The various groups that lobby for the Israeli hard-core retain influence in and out of the Administration. “There will be more Congressional involvement in the Middle East in the coming weeks,” says the House staffer. That means further opportunity for pro-Israel hawks to shape the debate and Bush’s decisions. Still, against the odds–and campaign donations and political clout–Bush spurned the Israel-all-the-way forces this round. A significant shift or a short-term plan? Bush himself probably doesn’t know.