April 18, 2002
Mixed Message to Bush
One message from this week's rally at the Capitol was clear -- solidarity with the State of Israel and its people. Much less clear was the message to the Bush administration. Signs, speakers and more than 100,000 demonstrators touted support for the U.S. war on terrorism. But few expressed support for Secretary of State Colin Powell's current mission in the Middle East, his meetings with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the Bush administration's call for Israel to end its military incursions into the West Bank.
A handful of U.S. senators and non-Jewish political leaders mentioned the Powell mission. American Jewish and Israeli leaders skirted it.
But while the Jewish leadership tried to stick to positive tones, a State Department official said the lasting image of the rally will be the negative response to the Bush administration's sole representative, who spoke from the administration's playbook.
Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense who is considered one of Israel's staunchest advocates in the administration, was drowned out by chants of "Down with Arafat" and at times, booed when he spoke of an eventual Palestinian state and the death of innocent Palestinians.
"The fact that Paul Wolfowitz is booed for talking about the sufferings of innocent Palestinians, in many ways reinforces the deep divide between many people in government -- even those sympathetic to Israel -- and the pro-Israel community," said a State Department official.
But the real question is, what impact, if any, the rally will have on administration policy.
The Bush administration is engaged in a delicate balancing act, trying to walk a fine line between supporting Israel's position that its offensive in the territories is part of the U.S. global war on terrorism, and asking Israel to withdraw its forces and return to political negotiations with the Palestinians.
Within the administration, the response appears mixed. One State Department official said he did not think the Powell team was about to change course because of the rally. "Given his immersion in this problem," the official said of Powell, "I am not sure he is worrying about what tens of thousands of people gathering on a spring day are saying." Others in the administration, however, said policy may not change, but the numbers that turned out can't be ignored. "This is not going to change policy because policy is not based on what's popular," said a Bush administration official. But he added, "We hear so much from Jewish leaders. To see that many Jews turn out for this will just speak volumes."