If you believe the opinion polls and there's no reason not to
George W. Bush doesn't have many fans. And last week, the dwindling
number of Bush loyalists got a bit smaller.
For the majority of American Jews who are Democrats, nothing not even
Bush's first visit as president to Israel was bound to win him much
Despite the opposition to the Iraq war and bitterness that dates back
to the 2000 election, the president has still been able to fall back on
his reputation as the best friend Israel has had in the White House, a
tag that was earned via steadfast support for the Jewish State during
the worst of the second intifada and the 2005 fight against Hezbollah
along the country's northern border.
But the Bush trip to Jerusalem last week did not result in general
hosannas from the pro-Israel community. Indeed, for many of his most
steadfast backers in this sector, the rhetoric coming out of the
presidential party was nothing short of a disaster.
THE OLD RULEBOOK
The decision to press ahead with Israel-Palestinian peace talks after
the Annapolis summit is exactly what Bush's opponents on the left have
chided him for not doing the first seven years of his presidency. They
have wanted him to embrace the peace process that former Bill Clinton
embraced in his presidency and even blamed Bush for the absence of
peace, even though the Palestinians are the ones to blame for choosing
terror over peace.
Bush changed the course chosen by the Clinton administration by
refusing to meet with Yasser Arafat. He proclaimed that the
Palestinians would have to give up terror in order to get a state, and
said that any peace deal would be based on the reality of Israeli
settlements and not solely on the pre-1967 borders.
In 2002 and 2004, Bush had appeared to throw away the old rulebook of
U.S. Middle East diplomacy, which "realists" who had dominated the
State Department in his father's time had always championed. But in
2008, that rulebook, which emphasized pressure on Israel to make
concessions in exchange for empty Arab promises, is back in place as
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have plunged head first
into the diplomatic maelstrom.
Bush made it clear last week that he was prepared to apply "a little
pressure" on Israel to get it to agree to a peace deal that few in the
country believe is possible. Despite other comments that demonstrated
his friendship for Israel, his goal of shepherding a Palestinian state
into existence during his presidency seemed to be the priority. He even
said that Israel was going to have to discuss the so-called Palestinian
"right of return."
All this has left Americans both Jewish and non-Jewish who liked
Bush's former policies stumped and saddened.
Some blame the influence of his father and elder Bush luminaries like
former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker. Others point to the need
to appease Arab public opinion for the sake of the war in Iraq. Still
others point to the increased influence of Rice in the aftermath of
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's departure in 2006.
That may all be true. Yet while both Americans and Israelis have
attempted to parse the contradictions in Bush's policies and sought to
find their authors inside the administration, the obvious answer to the
decision to go ahead is right under their noses. Far from being Bush's
helpless victim and subject to the awful "pressure" that Israel has
always dreaded, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fully behind the current
Olmert has been sending clear signals that he is ready to do a deal
with the Palestinians, which replicates the wildly generous terms
offered to Arafat by Ehud Barak at Taba. He has told Israelis that the
world doesn't accept an undivided Jerusalem, and that they must learn
to live with this. And he has made it clear that Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas is his peace partner, no matter what Fatah
No one but Olmert and his closest advisers know whether he really
thinks that Abbas can sign a peace deal that accepts Israel as a Jewish
state within any borders or that he would survive if he did. It may
be that domestic political considerations have led them to believe that
pursuing a peace process, even a futile one, is his best bet to hang on
to office, despite popularity ratings even lower than Bush. But while
Bush is the senior partner in this alliance, Olmert is still the one in
the driver's seat on this question. Anyone who thinks the prime
minister is being dragged kicking and screaming to the table is dead
All of this leads us to the question that many refuse to contemplate:
Could Olmert say "no" to Bush and Rice if he wanted to?
Despite Israel's dependence on the United States for military and
diplomatic support, the answer is a resounding "yes."
Even as a lame duck with a secretary of state who is desperate for a
diplomatic coup, there's nothing to indicate that Bush would implement
this strategy if Olmert said it was dead on arrival.
GO TO SEDEROT
If Olmert wanted to, he could have said that anyone in the president's
delegation who wanted to know why even Israelis who oppose settlements
have no intention of handing over more territory to the Palestinians
need only take a visit to Sederot.
That Israeli town within the 1949 armistice lines remains under siege
as Kassam missiles launched from "Hamasistan" in Gaza territory
Israel left in 2005 rain down on its people every day. If Israel
backs up to the 1967 borders the same scene could be played out in 2009
at Ben-Gurion airport.
Olmert could have stated last week that until incitement against Israel
and Jews on Abbas' own P.A.-controlled broadcast media ceased, peace
was impossible. Indeed, 15 years of post-Oslo Palestinian autonomy has
resulted in a new generation of Palestinians raised on hatred.
In response to suggestions that Israel negotiate about the "right of
return," Olmert could have pointed out that several hundred thousand
Jews were expelled or forced to flee from Arab countries after 1948,
and are just as deserving of recognition and compensation as Arabs who
But for good or for ill, Olmert has done none of this.
The premier would certainly face some heat from Washington if he just
said "no." But it's just as certain that if he did that and called on
Israel's many friends in both major parties in the United States to
back him up, Bush would not have persisted.
Those disillusioned by Bush's flip-flop are right to criticize him. But
anyone who thinks that Israel is being forced to go along is focusing
on the wrong end of the partnership. What happens in the next year
whether it turns out to be peace, war or the more likely option of a
continued stalemate remains a fate that Israel's democratically
elected government is choosing of its own free will.