Editor’s Notes: Israeli pointers on an American dilemma

By David Horovitz October 22, 2004

Intra-Jewish tension about whom to choose for president has risen drastically

On a trip abroad this week, at an evening lecture in California for a leading American Jewish organization, we got to the Q&A session and a well-groomed, bespectacled man rose to ask whether I would be prepared to make any comments from an Israeli perspective about the imminent ballot-box choice Americans are facing.

Ah yes, I began, I’m going to march straight into that minefield. That got a big laugh, but he wanted a serious answer, as did the rest of the audience.

I’d only been in the US for a couple of days, but that had been long enough to realize that, in the few months since my last visit, the intra-Jewish tension level about whom to vote for has risen drastically. What was once mildly debated now causes blood to boil. At the quiet dinner prior to the same event, one of the participants, plainly if not explicitly urging support for Kerry, in despair at America’s lack of international allies, and supportive of the challenger’s pledge to try and fight terror with wider international backing, felt the need to walk away from the table to calm both himself and the conversation as the argument over whether America’s presence in Iraq had anything at all to do with the war on terror turned bitter. How fraught are the conversations among Jews across the Bush-Kerry divide, I had asked a little earlier. ‘Lethal,’ was one response.

What I told the California audience, which I think was more focused on my response to this question than on anything else I said that night, is that I don’t believe it’s the job of Israeli journalists, politicians, organizational bigwigs, or any other Israelis for that matter, to tell Americans who should be running their country. It’s their choice, and it is they who must live most directly with the consequences. In much the same way, after all, we Israelis would deeply resent a heavy-handed effort by American Jewish opinion-shapers to tell us who we should elect to lead our country (indeed we know, I said to knowing laughter, that no American Jew would ever try to do that).

At the same time, given that we will be deeply affected by America’s choice on November 2, there are some observations worth making from an Israeli perspective as we approach the culmination of what has become an incredibly bitter American campaign and one that is causing immense dilemmas for some Jewish voters, struggling to do right by Israel and by their other values and concerns.

I think it’s fair to say that most Israelis have been generally contented with the Bush presidency, or more accurately the administration since June 2002. There were reservations at the start, what with unhappy memories of the Bush, Sr., years and no sense in W. of the affinity for Israel that Clinton managed to project. In fact, many people have quickly forgotten the strains on the bilateral relationship that prompted Ariel Sharon’s blistering October 4, 2001, press conference, in which he essentially warned the United States not to mistake Israel for Czechoslovakia and not to ‘try to appease the Arabs at our expense’ – one of the most incendiary warnings about presumed harmful American intentions ever delivered by an Israeli prime minister. Many have quickly forgotten, too, Bush’s repeated importunities to Israel to get its troops out of Palestinian areas of the West Bank – reiterated as late as April 2002, after the worst month of terrorism in the whole history of modern Israel, when the finger-wagging president emphasized that ‘I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel – I expect there to be a withdrawal without delay.’

That such presidential opposition to our troops entering the territories to try and thwart suicide bombers continued even after 9/11 underlines how Bush’s arrow-straight line in the sand between the forces of good and evil sometimes seemed to go strangely wobbly where Israelis and Palestinians were concerned.

But all that changed on June 24, 2002. Bush was finally persuaded – evidently by a combination of factors including the intercept of the Karine-A Gaza-bound arms haul, a no-nonsense report from his envoy Anthony Zinni, and documents seized from PA offices in the course of that spring’s Operation Defensive Shield – of the duplicity of Yasser Arafat’s English-language professions of peace. And out he came onto the White House lawn to declare that while America supported the Palestinians’ aspiration for statehood, the path to independence could not be advanced until they had ‘honest government’ and an alternate leadership that was not ‘compromised by terror.’ On the whole since then, I’d say, most Israelis have felt that Bush has ‘got it’ where Israel is concerned – in marked contrast to all too many world leaders who seem to have inexplicable difficulty discerning cause and effect in the past four years of Palestinian attacks and Israeli responses. And while there may be far less consensus regarding his methods and his ordering of priorities, Israelis are overwhelmingly appreciative of the president’s commitment to a global, uncompromising struggle against terrorism. How could we not be, when we are on the front lines?

Amid some of the misgivings now, it should also be recalled that, where ousting Saddam Hussein was concerned, there was barely a voice raised here to query the assumed benefits for the Jewish state of someone else’s military machine rolling into Baghdad to remove a dictator who had pledged to incinerate half of our country and who underlined the intent by, unprovoked, firing more than three dozen Scud missiles into Israel in the early months of 1991. Our attitude to the war at present, though, depends entirely on its ultimate resolution. If America achieves stability in Iraq, and creates a sense of ongoing commitment to wider regional reform and accountability – and, crucially, to the thwarting of Iran’s nuclear drive – our initial support for intervention, and our gratitude to the architect of that intervention, will be redoubled. If, by contrast, America’s involvement ends in what is interpreted by the Arab world as humiliation, with our most dangerous strategic enemy, Iran, strengthened, and other rogue regimes and terror groups emboldened, we will come to regard our own almost instinctive backing for Iraqi regime change as utterly misguided.

Senator Kerry’s own camp readily acknowledges that its candidate cannot outdo Bush on overt support for Israel. He and his team are hoping to persuade concerned voters that he will be as good a friend to Israel, and a smarter ally in as determined a struggle against terror, while championing the other domestic and international issues and agendas that have traditionally drawn Jews to the Democrats. Quickly retracted suggestions that he might look to Jimmy Carter or James Baker to play a role in Middle East mediation, of course, have not played well in Israel, where Carter is regarded at best as naively pro-Palestinian and Baker, by some at least, as brutal and heartless.

In trying to assess whether Kerry would be as firmly allied with Israel as his aides would have us believe, and as Bush has been, one pointer might be his position on the oral and written commitments made by Bush to Sharon when our prime minister last visited the White House, in April. Bush staked out positions that Clinton had taken before him, but Clinton had been trying to chivvy Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward a peace accord at the time, and was urging major concessions on Israel, whereas Bush was speaking in the absence of any negotiated process and without making heavy demands on Sharon. In declaring that Israel cannot be expected to absorb Palestinian refugees and that demographic changes over recent decades mean it is ‘unrealistic’ for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, and can thus apparently expect to expand sovereignty over at least some heavily-Jewishly-populated parts of the West Bank, Bush was, for all his administration’s subsequent denials, taking firmly pro-Israel ‘final status’ positions. And Kerry, immediately and significantly, backed him, declaring simply that ‘what’s important, obviously, is the security of the State of Israel.’

There are, of course, no guarantees that President Kerry would be true to Candidate Kerry’s positions. And there are no guarantees that second-term Bush, doubtless urged by real and illusory potential allies in Europe and beyond to try and catalyze renewed Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, would be the unmodified successor to first-term Bush.

And yet it is hard to image a US president of any political stripe pressing Israel into radical policy shifts so long as Yasser Arafat speaks for the Palestinians. Both president and challenger have indicated that they will not deal with the PA head.

After Arafat? If, improbably, that era ultimately yields a Palestinian leadership that is truly committed to coexistence and halts violence, that prepares its people for compromise, teaches them about the Jewish rights to sovereignty in the Holy Land and educates toward tolerance, if we are favored with that kind of partner, Israel won’t need pressure from a US president, or any source, to return to the path of diplomacy and negotiation.

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