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JewishJournal.com

November 4, 2004

Will Bush Change Course on Israel?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/will_bush_change_course_on_israel_20041105

The Israeli establishment is delighted by the re-election of President Bush.

His Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, may have been seen as a good friend of Israel, but Israeli officials speak of an ideological meeting of minds between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud-led government and Bush's neoconservative-dominated milieu.

Both put a premium on the war against terror and the creation of democratic institutions as a means to world and regional peace. Moreover, Bush's record on Israel as president is seen as impeccable, and there was some anxiety that, if elected, Kerry might have been inclined to follow a more coordinated internationalist policy leading to pressure on Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian track.

But there are concerns about pressure on Israel from a second Bush administration, too. Some suggest that Bush may seek improved ties with Europe, and that that could spell new demands on Israel. Israeli officials hold that Bush's overall worldview, dividing the world into good and evil protagonists, allies and enemies, with Israel on the side of the steadfast allies, is a huge bonus.

Kerry, the Democrat, would probably have been more inclined to turn to the international community, and international institutions like the United Nations and the International Court at the Hague, to resolve global problems. And that, the officials maintain, might have been detrimental to Israeli interests.

They also make much of Bush's letter to Sharon last April, in which they see a significant upgrading of the strategic understanding between Israel and the United States on the Palestinian issue.

The letter underscores agreement that the Palestinians would not have the right to return to Israel proper in a final peace settlement, that Israel would be able to keep large settlement blocs in the West Bank, and that the United States would not support any international peace plan other than the "road map," which both Israel and the Palestinians have approved.

In addition, they say, Bush, who refused to have anything to do with Yasser Arafat because of his perceived implication in Palestinian terror, would be less likely to deal with his successors unless they carry out road map reforms. Kerry, if elected, they say, might not have stuck to the road map or to its demands for Palestinian reform. Still, there is a mainstream assessment in the Israeli Foreign Ministry that American policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue even under Bush will be become more proactive and more closely coordinated with Europe.

A ministry position paper warns of a possible American deal with Europe over Iraq and Iran, in which Israeli concessions to the Palestinians are the payoff for European support for Washington in Iraq and the Gulf.

There are two schools of thought on a new Bush administration in the Foreign Ministry: One expects more of the same, with Bush feeling that he now has an overwhelming mandate from the American people to continue the war on terror, as well as his policies in Iraq and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter what the Europeans think.

The opposing view holds that Bush's first order of business will be to start cleaning up the mess in Iraq, and that he will need European and Arab support.

"He won't go to them cap in hand," an official told JTA. "But he will be ready to coordinate moves with them on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in return."

What this will mean on the ground, the official said, is American insistence that immediately after its planned withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank next summer, Israel be ready to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians, based on the road map, with the Europeans playing a key role.

"Bush," said the official, who asked not to be identified, "will want to see his two-state vision, Israel and Palestine, side by side, implemented before he completes his second term."

But, the official said, much will depend on the Palestinians. Bush will only push for progress if the violence stops. Otherwise, he will give Israel the same unlimited backing in its fight against terror as he has for the past three years.

On the other hand, if a new Palestinian leadership, with a sick Arafat out of the picture, does make a serious effort to curb terror, Bush, in his second term, will want to see more from Israel, the official said. He won't pressure Israel in a crude way but he will ask "that it help the U.S. by making moves that go down well in Europe and the Arab world."

Labor leader Shimon Peres makes a similar argument, but sees in it positive potential. He says the next major challenge America will face will be Iran, and its drive for nuclear weapons.

After two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States will not be in a position to launch a third. Therefore, he reasons, it will need international -- especially European -- cooperation to contain Iran through the imposition of sanctions.

This, he says, will probably lead to a Middle East package -- a new U.S.-backed European initiative on Israel and the Palestinians, in return for European support on Iraq and Iran.

In some government circles, there is a fear that this could lead to pressure Israel will be bound to resist. But Peres sees it as a welcome development. He says three major changes are coming to fruition at the same historical moment and could lead to a long overdue breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian track: the Israeli government's readiness to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank, a Palestinian readiness to be more pragmatic, and Europe and the United States, after the American election, ready to play a more active role.

Peres is hoping that Bush, in his second term, may be ready to risk more than he did first time around to stabilize the Middle East as a whole. And he is convinced that this need not lead to a showdown with Israel.

The Foreign Ministry officials, who foresee a more proactive American policy, agree -- on the condition that the Israeli government continues to coordinate all its moves as closely as possible with the new administration.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

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