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Jewish Journal

Drama in Israel, High Stakes in the U.S.

by James D. Besser

June 3, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Photo by Richard Lobell

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Photo by Richard Lobell

Israeli politics is always a mix of high drama and low comedy, but the current fight within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's divided government is anything but entertaining for Jewish leaders here.

Israeli commentators have noted that it is a struggle for the soul of the Likud party. How that turns out will have consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship and on Israel's already-low standing around the world.

It will also have a major impact on an American Jewish community that has come together to support a beleaguered Israel, but which is unlikely to stay together to support settlers who want to remain in their Gaza and West Bank enclaves.

According to sources here, the pro-Israel lobby has sent an unambiguous message to Sharon and his warring government ministers: expect problems in U.S.-Israel relations if you can't approve a comprehensive Gaza withdrawal plan.

The reasons aren't hard to grasp.

President George W. Bush, initially cool to the plan, latched on to it last month as an alternative to the stalled Mideast "road map." To help Sharon win the promised Likud referendum on the pullout, the president offered some dramatic concessions, including rejection of the Palestinian right of return and an acknowledgment that Israel can retain some West Bank land after a settlement with the Palestinians.

Bush paid a big diplomatic price for those concessions; European and Arab allies were incensed at just the moment when the administration was seeking their help in the Iraq tangle. Their anger intensified when Sharon lost the Likud referendum and began talking about a watered-down or phased plan, making President Bush look like the sucker of the decade.

The administration can't afford a second loss. Now, officials here clearly expect Sharon to find a way to sell the plan to his government and start implementing it -- pronto.

Bush's need for a diplomatic victory will only increase as he holds a series of meetings here and abroad this month trying to enlist international cooperation in the effort to bring a semblance of stability to Iraq.

Officials here expect a full withdrawal, not a piecemeal or partial one, and they expect Israel to coordinate with the hated Palestinian Authority to prevent a Hamas takeover when Israeli troops and settlers evacuate Gaza.

Sharon has gotten that message; this week he is sending his foreign minister to Cairo to discuss the handover with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

With an election only five months away and both parties scrambling for Jewish support, the Bush administration has no intention of publicly squeezing Israel.

But the message is going out through diplomatic channels: after Nov. 2, there could be hell to pay if Sharon does not make good on his deal with Bush.

If Sharon loses the withdrawal fight to the well-organized settler minority, the role of the settlers in setting national policy will dramatically increase, with huge diplomatic consequences.

President Bush's unusually strong affinity for Sharon has everything to do with the Israeli leader's tough and uncompromising response to terrorism, nothing to do with his longtime advocacy of settlements, which this administration, like its predecessors, continues to regard as an impediment to any peace process.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader, may identify with Israeli settlers, but the core of Israel's political support on Capitol Hill has little sympathy for Israel's not-one-inch crowd.

Since Sept. 11, the American public has gained a better understanding of the problems Israel faces. But that new sympathy could evaporate if Sharon is defeated by a small band of settlers regarded here as ideological and religious zealots.

There are also potential communal consequences.

The Jewish community has long been divided over the best route to peace in the region, but it has mostly put those divisions on hold since the resumption of widespread Palestinian terrorism in 2000.

Sharon has been a divisive figure over his long career, but by and large American Jews have stood behind his government as it confronts terrorists and a Yasser Arafat that even avid doves concede is not a fit partner for peace.

But beneath today's veneer of unity, the Jewish community is more divided than ever. An increasingly vocal minority, backed by powerful friends in the Christian community, reject any new territorial concessions. But a majority still support the concept of land for peace negotiations, although many remain skeptical about the current Palestinian leadership.

A failure by Sharon to put over the plan will bring those divisions back into the open and intensify them as American Jews choose up sides in the fight between settlers and mainstream Israel.

The groups that call the Gaza plan a "surrender" or "retreat" plan may be among the loudest in Jewish life today, but it's the Jewish mainstream that Israel relies on as the foundation of its political support in this country.

That foundation, as well as relations with a sympathetic administration, is at risk as Sharon fights the most difficult battle in a life of difficult battles.

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