Jewish Journal

The Good News About W.

by James D. Besser

Posted on Aug. 30, 2001 at 8:00 pm

Good news has been in short supply since the Mideast peace process crashed and burned last September and the region was engulfed with violence, which shows no sign of abating.

But for pro-Israel activists, there is one bright note: Bush II is proving to be a far cry from Bush I.

As leaders in Jerusalem struggle to contain the raging violence, the seven-month-old administration of President George W. Bush has turned out to be far more understanding of Israel's plight than the first Bush administration a decade ago.

Jewish right-wingers vent outrage over periodic State Department rebukes of Israel for "provocative" military actions, but the sharpest and most frequent U.S. criticisms have been reserved for the Palestinians; the policy of "evenhandedness" now seems like a relic from the past.

That was evident again last week when Bush, responding to a question about the Israeli thrust into Hebron, said, "If the Palestinians are interested in a dialogue, then I would strongly urge Mr. Arafat to put 100 percent effort into stopping the terrorist activity, and I believe he can do a better job of doing that."

That shift has derailed Yasser Arafat's effort to play for sympathy in Washington and win direct U.S. intervention, although Arafat's stance has produced better results in more impressionable capitals, mostly in Europe.

What's going on? There are a number of variables at work here, but three stand out. Here's a quick summary.

Domestic Politics

As a candidate, George W. Bush promised a domestically focused administration; as president, he has delivered.

Facing bitter fights over the federal budget, energy policy, faith-based programs and a still-stalled education package, the last thing he wants is a political squabble with an overwhelmingly pro-Israel Congress.

Despite the new Mideast violence, criticism of Israel is almost nonexistent on Capitol Hill, while Arafat has become an ever-more popular target for harsh congressional statements, resolutions and bills.

The pro-Israel sentiment defies partisan lines; any crackdown on Israel would cause strains between Bush and his own party's leadership in Congress, and make it much harder for his inward-looking government to meet the daunting domestic challenges it faces in the next year or two.

Some key Bush constituencies -- starting with the Christian right -- despise Arafat. Peace groups and the Arab-American community may want a more balanced approach, but they have little pull in this White House.

Yasser Arafat

Only a year ago, the Palestinian leader was the toast of the town, with more Washington visits than any other foreign leader. Today, the only way he could visit is with a tour group.

The administration's refusal to invite Arafat to Washington is more than just a lever to push him back to the bargaining table; it is a reflection of a genuine aversion to a man officials here believe took an intentional detour off the difficult road to peace.

Arafat is also seen as tolerating or encouraging an anti-Americanism that infuriates officials here. His close relations with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the longtime nemesis of the Bushes, doesn't help. Nor does his invitation for Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- groups that regularly spew invective against America -- to join his government.

And then there's the Bill Clinton factor.

The former president's embrace of the Palestinian leader is regarded by the new administration as an almost perfect example of Clinton's dangerously naive approach to foreign policy. The Bush team frequently creates policy by doing exactly the opposite of what its predecessor did; the shunning of Arafat, in part, reflects that.

Ariel Sharon

He may be the "bulldozer" of Israeli politics and Mideast diplomacy, but he has handled relations with Washington with a surprisingly deft touch.

His policy of relative restraint was all the more impressive to administration policy-makers because of his fearsome reputation.

He has done a good job of describing the strategic justifications for Israel's recent strikes into Palestinian territory; he has satisfied Washington that he has no interest in a long-term return by Israeli forces to areas already under Palestinian control.

His policy of quick, ferocious strikes and just as quick withdrawals has yet to slow the violence, but so far it has succeeded in one of its goals: keeping Washington off his back.

The State Department has expressed strong displeasure at the policy of targeted killings, but the overall view is that the Israeli leader has responded cautiously to a reckless campaign of violence against Israel.

Sharon has also effectively played to Washington's concerns about a still-belligerent Iran and about spreading Islamic fundamentalism.

Once seen as the ultimate Israeli ideologue, Sharon has been able to portray himself as a pragmatist -- a good image choice for an administration that sees the world through a narrow, practical lens.

And in doing that, he has gotten a big boost from domestic U.S. politics and his old foe, Yasser Arafat.

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