The Bushes and the Palestinians: Act 2

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One taboo prevalent in the first weeks after September 11 is already listing badly: it is becoming less mandatory to pretend that the attack has “absolutely nothing to do” with the American tie to Israel. Writing in the Wall Street Journal shortly after the attack, Norman Podhoretz insisted on the lack of any meaningful connection, and several subsequent commentators, including, initially, President Bush himself, asserted he terror was completely unrelated to any American policies in the Mid East. Generally it was attributed to Islamic dislike of American freedoms, success, to “who we are.”

No doubt the motives é both of the terrorists, and those who support them é are mixed, and Islam’s sad identity crisis in its encounter with the West has some weight. But denial that the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate generates enormous ill will towards the United States in the Arab world, or that the Israeli occupation, backed by American arms, gives the bin Ladens of the region effective recruiting points and propaganda themes, seems more and more difficult.

Now this linkage has apparently been acknowledged at the highest levels. Last Tuesday’s New York Times frontpage revealed a bombshell: the administration let it be known that prior to September 11, it had planned to endorse formally the idea of a Palestinian state. Secretary of State Powell was going to outline an American conception of a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement in a speech before the General Assembly, President Bush planned to meet with Yasser Arafat. Questioned last week, President in essence affirmed this, saying “The idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision.”

The leak and Bush’s comment are part of the effort to build alliances in the Arab world prior to taking out bin Laden; they also serve as a counter to the “go-to-war é against-the-whole é Arab-world” rhetoric emanating from the neoconservative magazines and editorial pages. But once the words are out, they can’t easily be retracted.

On the merits of course, the Palestinian state idea is unimpeachable, required for any resolution of the conflict that purports to conform with justice. That has been clear from the outset, though many barriers had to be overcome. The Palestinians needed to accept as fact Israel’s permanent existence in the region and its right to secure and recognized borders; that acquiescence to half a loaf was not really obtained until after the Gulf War. The Israelis had to give up the idea of a “Greater Israel” established on the captured lands of he West Bank and Gaza. The maximalists on the Israeli side have more than matched the Palestinians in stubbornness, both in Israel itself, where both political parties have expanded the illegal settlements, and among the Jewish state’s hard line American supporters. The latter, neoconservative hawks for the most part, play prominent roles both inside the Bush administration and in right wing journalism.

For those reasons, no one should underestimate the risk in the political leap President Bush took in saying “Yes there should be a Palestinian state” é or the intensity of the battle that now lies before him. Bush will soon find himself fighting a two front war, first to rally American and world opinion to support strikes against the Taliban, and secondly against a domestic lobby which will fight tooth and nail against American diplomatic pressure on Israel to make concessions.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee é by acclamation Capitol Hill’s most potent lobby é was quick to denounce the White House, issuing a statement claiming “Those who are urging the President to meet with PLO Chairman Arafat. . . are undermining America’s war against terrorism.” (The “those who are urging” phrasing diplomatically tries to avoid direct criticism of Bush, but more direct attacks will certainly come.) The Forward, the well-informed Jewish weekly, described the reaction of Jewish leaders to the Times report as “furious.” Robert Satloff, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, lambasted the Bush suggestion, saying the successful American Mid East diplomacy has always stressed that “process” was more important than “preferred outcomes.”

Interestingly, Satloff put forward as an example for the current President to follow George Herbert Walker Bush (Bush I) who, he claims, put together a coalition with Arabs to reverse Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait without making any promises about the Palestinian question. “That was the right approach then, and is still the right approach” Satloff concludes.

The example is noteworthy because of what Satloff doesn’t mention: George Bush senior’s presidency was gravely wounded in its post-Desert Storm face-off with the Israeli lobby over the Palestinian issue.

As the dust settled in the summer of 1991 after the victory over Iraq, Bush I began to press for diplomatic progress on the Israel-Palestinian front. But Israel wanted American loan guarantees to settle a large new influx of Soviet Jews on the West Bank, and Congress was inclined to give it, no strings attached. The White House did not want new Israeli settlements built on the Palestinian territory é believing, as had every American administration before and since, that Israeli settlements were a barrier to a durable peace. The settlements deprived the future Palestinian state of contiguous territory while expanding the Israeli domestic constituency with a passionate vested interest (their homes) against any “land for peace” arrangement. Seeking a compromise with Congress, the White House pushed for a four-month moratorium on the loan guarantees, but the Israeli lobby asked for the funds to be released right away.

In a press conference that would become notorious, President Bush complained about the size and intensity of the lobby’s activities. “I heard today there were something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely guy [himself] down here doing it.” The remark draw a clear line between the President and AIPAC, generating a firestorm of anger within organized American Jewry. High ranking figures in major Jewish organizations accused the president of a “disgusting display of, if not anti-Semitism, at least something close to it.” Thousands of letters to the editor poured into American newspapers, attacking Bush in similar terms.

On the day of his press conference, (September 12, 1991) Bush, the organizer of the Desert Storm victory, held a 70 percent approval rating in the opinion polls. Within two months, his political stock had nose-dived. His close friend Richard Thornburgh, a former attorney general, soon lost a comfortable lead in an off year race for an open Pennsylvania Senate seat, after money suddenly began pouring in to his Democratic opponents’ campaign. Thornburgh’s defeat that November was taken as a harbinger President Bush’s own re-election vulnerability.

This account of Bush I’s fall (drawn largely from J.J. Goldberg’s Jewish Power: Inside the Jewish Establishment) does not attribute Bush’s political collapse entirely to fallout from taking on “the lobby”. The economy was weak, and did not begin to emerge from recession until late 2002. But it does illustrate the potential dangers é even for a Republican not greatly dependent on Jewish financial or voter support é of a political showdown with Israel’s backers over the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

It is virtually inconceivable that Bush fils has failed to speak extensively with his father about those fateful days of a mere decade ago, well before uttering his own simple words about Palestinian statehood. Assuming that the President hasn’t stepped into this hornets nest without reflection, he has demonstrated, impressively, that he at least is ready to “take risks for peace.”

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