Last October, when Israeli air force jets struck a Palestinian terrorist training camp outside Damascus in response to a deadly suicide bombing at a Haifa restaurant, there was some anticipation that Washington might rebuke its Jewish ally. It was, after all, Israel's first attack inside Syria in three decades. And it came at a tenuous moment both for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for U.S. stabilization efforts in Iraq.
The last thing the Bush administration needed was a flare-up along Israel's northern border. The expectations were wrong. Yes, the administration, including President Bush, urged Israel to be mindful of the consequences of its decisions. But there was no outright condemnation.
In fact, Bush expressed understanding for the strike; he said he would have made the same choice. "The decisions [Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] makes to defend [Israel's] people are valid decisions. We would be doing the same thing," Bush said.
It was perhaps one of the clearest examples of how Bush, influenced by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, has come to perceive the U.S. war on terrorism as akin to Israel's war with Palestinian terrorist groups. That view was evident in his recent press conference, too, when he grouped bus bombings in Jerusalem with a long litany of Al Qaeda attacks, including the Sept. 11 strikes.
Bush's sympathy for Israel's security challenges -- and Sharon's domestic political challenges -- was evident again most recently at his April 14 meeting with Sharon, when Bush forthrightly endorsed Israel's right to defend itself against terror, told Palestinian refugees they were unrealistic to ever think they would return to Israel and supported the principle of Israel holding on to portions of the West Bank in a future peace agreement.
American Jews, many of whom have been kvelling for months over Bush's "pro-Israel" stance, were ecstatic with Bush's display of affection for Sharon, which was evident not only in the letters of assurances they exchanged but in the jocular atmosphere at their joint appearance before reporters. American Jewish groups from across the political spectrum could not send press releases fast enough praising Bush.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, called it an "exemplary display of historic cooperation." Israel Policy Forum, a group that strongly backed President Bill Clinton's efforts to foster a two-state solution said Bush "rose to the occasion."
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which fights many of the Bush administration's social policies, applauded Bush's comments. Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, so impressed by the Bush-Sharon display, described the prime minister as his "hero" for his unilateral disengagement plan.
There is much evidence that Bush has been an outstanding president for Israel. Perhaps nothing benefited Israel more in terms of its long-term security threats, analysts say, than the U.S.-led regime change in Iraq, which Israel believed posed an existential threat to its existence. Bush carried it out despite warnings from many skeptics who argued that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needed to be found first.
"Certainly Israel's security is enhanced by the absence of Saddam Hussein," Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) told The Jewish Journal.
Bush has made the Iranian threat a top issue, too. Last week, he spoke about the intolerability of Iran achieving a nuclear weapon, "particularly since their stated objective is the destruction of Israel."
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, he has given Sharon unbridled leeway to fight Palestinian terrorism. Bush long ago dumped Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner, acknowledging what Israel has been saying for years -- that he is not a partner for peace.
But amid the din of delight about Bush, there are some voices of dissent -- including some prominent former U.S. officials in particular, who worry that the American Jewish community is misguided in its praise for the president's Israel policies. Martin Indyk, the former two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel, contends that Bush's embrace of Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan might harm Israel's overall security long-term and lead to many more Israeli casualties.
"Look, there's no question that Bush has been a friend of Israel in difficult times, in his repeated willingness to veto U.N. Security Council resolutions that are hostile to Israel, his sense of principle that Israel has its right to defend itself and to react with force to terrorists who act against it," Indyk said. "Those things are very important, and I give him credit for that. But what has been lacking is a willingness to help Israel stop the violence and regenerate a process of reconciliation."
"The problem in terms of the Jewish community is people have come to regard engagement by the United States as pressure on Israel. They have concluded it's a bad thing. They misunderstand that engagement helps Israel achieves its objectives. Israel has achieved peace with Egypt because of U.S. engagement. It achieved peace with Jordan because of U.S. engagement. But the notion that engagement is the wrong thing is wrong-headed," Indyk said. "Without that effort, we end up with these kinds of unilateral steps, territory for nothing. There's no commitment on the other side."
Most glaring among the Bush administration's faults on the Israeli-Palestinian front was its failure to encourage Sharon to prop up Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was forced to resign last autumn after failing to produce any achievements for his people.
"Imagine if Sharon had agreed to evacuate one settlement in the negotiations, the impact that would have had on Abu Mazen's ability to convey that he could deliver what terrorism could not," Indyk said. "Instead, the Palestinians reach the conclusion that terrorism works."
Indyk faulted Bush, not Sharon, for this, saying, "I blame George Bush. Because my experience with Ariel Sharon is he has always been ready to respond to American engagement."
Instead, Bush, after meeting with Abu Mazen and Sharon in Aqaba last June, became preoccupied with Iraq and walked away from the process.
"The Jewish community agrees that the Palestinians are to blame, and everybody is happy," Indyk said. "Except Israel isn't helped by that. If [Bush] had engaged earlier on the Mitchell plan and the Tenet cease-fire plan in the first six months, a lot fewer Israelis would have died."
Aaron Miller, president of Seeds of Peace and an adviser to the last six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said, "Rarely have you had a president who is so ideologically attuned to the importance of accommodating Israel's security needs."
"In terms of whether Bush has been good for Israel on the narrow issue of Israel's security needs and requirements, you have an administration that is likely to give Israel the benefit of the doubt that no other administration -- at least that I've worked for -- has been willing to," Miller said. "It's rare for a Republican administration to relate so closely and so seamlessly to a Likud government."
Miller applauded Bush for being the first U.S. president to endorse a state of "Palestine," the first to talk seriously about the problem of Palestinian incitement and the first to consider introducing monitors, early on, to observe implementation of any interim agreement. But on whether the approach the administration has adopted on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is good for Israel, Miller said, "I think the answer would clearly be no."
"I don't want to reach the conclusion yet that what we are facing now [in the wake of the Bush-Sharon agreements on unilateral disengagement] is the beginning of the end of the two-state solution," he continued. "But what if in effect you are creating enough of a critical mass that the odds against such a solution grow stronger and stronger."
Echoing Indyk's criticism of the lack of engagement, Miller said, "We have failed to understand that by sitting on the sidelines and essentially acquiescing -- however well-intentioned the reasons may be -- we are adopting a course of action that is likely to make the situation worse than better."
Miller said the political assurances Bush gave Sharon are "not a tectonic shift" from the parameters Clinton outlined on the right of return for Palestinian refugees or the prospect of something less than a return to the 1967 borders. In fact, he said, Bush's formulations are much more general.
The problem, he argued, is that "the assurances occur against a backdrop of no peace process, no mediation and a climate of hopelessness and despair."
Bruce Jentleson, director of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University, said the American Jewish community "is too readily equating Bush's agreeing with Sharon on all issues with acting in Israel's security interests."
He doesn't think they equate. "I think the kind of support the Bush administration is giving to Sharon is not in Israel's security interests. It's pretty certain you can't have security without peace. And this is making peace more difficult."
Jentleson said Sharon "played Bush like a fiddle" in winning support for his unilateral withdrawal plan by stressing Israel's war on terrorism and its security needs, issues that resonate with Bush. He said the latest example of this was Sharon saying he told Bush he is no longer bound by his commitment not to harm Arafat. Bush, Jentleson said, "is not calling the shots here."
The assurances Bush gave Sharon, beyond perhaps endangering a future peace process, also could pose problems for America's moderate Arab allies, like Egypt and Jordan, whom the U.S. and Israel will rely on for help in implementing the unilateral disengagement plan, specifically the re-training of Palestinian security forces to take control in the Gaza Strip.
While one Jordanian diplomat told me that there would be no formal, fresh consequences for the Israel-Jordan relationship, it seems unlikely that the Jordanian ambassador or the Egyptian ambassador, yanked from Tel Aviv in October 2000 to protest Israel's handling of the intifada, will return anytime soon.
Washington's "prejudging these critical issues at this stage will negatively impact the whole region and not just Jordan, also the other moderate countries," the Jordanian diplomat said. "Anyone who has good relations with Israel will be looked at skeptically."
A U.S. official said the Bush-Sharon embrace could negatively impact those countries' willingness to cooperate in counterterrorism efforts and most certainly in Washington's plan for democratic reform in the region, known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative.
How much the Bush pledges to Sharon will matter in the long-term will depend largely on whether he is elected to a second term.
"If he has a good legacy in the Middle East, it will be very important. But if he goes down as a one-term president who embroiled the country in a war, I don't' think it will have a long-lasting effect, because he will go down as one more president who didn't really understand the realities of the region," said Gal Luft, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. A specialist in the Middle East and terrorism, Luft is also a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), hoping to boost his credentials with the Jewish community, rather than try to distinguish himself from Bush on the Israel issue -- as he has on virtually every other -- welcomed the unilateral withdrawal plan and Bush's endorsement of it. His punting was most evident in his response to a question on NBC's "Meet the Press" when Tim Russert asked: "President Bush broke with the tradition and policy of six predecessors when he said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?"
Kerry replied, simply, "Yes."
"He's basically saying, listen, there are many issues of disagreement between George Bush and John Kerry -- from Iraq, to stem-cell research, to choice -- but when it comes to the safety and security of the State of Israel, it's just not going to be an issue," said Jay Footlik, senior adviser on Middle East and Jewish issues in the Kerry campaign.
Footlik said he understands why the Bush campaign would want to "keep the focus on Israel" with the Jewish community. "It's a winning message for them," he acknowledged.
But Footlik predicted that the message will not sway too many Democratic Jewish voters away from Kerry. "Jewish voters are not one-issue voters," he said. "And while Israel is first and foremost in our minds, we know when we have a strong candidate on Israel and have strong bipartisan support on Israel. [Jews] are at great odds with just about everything the administration has done on domestic issues."
Jentleson, however, predicted more Jews will vote for Bush than any previous Republican candidate, and that Bush could win perhaps as much as half the Jewish vote. "I think he'll do really well," he said. But he does not believe that Bush's support for Sharon has been motivated by pure politics.
"For Bush it's a twofer," he said. "It works for him politically, and it embodies his world view."
Janine Zacharia is the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She also is a regular contributor to The New Republic and a Mideast analyst for MSNBC. She wrote this article for The Jewish Journal.