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Jewish World Review July 1, 2002 / 21 Tamuz, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Off-Key Dissent

Bush's Middle East peace speech was great, but some Jews didn't get it | Some people cannot take "yes" for an answer.

No, I'm not talking about the Palestinian Arabs who, in Abba Eban's memorable phrase, "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

In the wake of President Bush's June 24 landmark speech on the Middle East, few serious people expected them to understand that the president actually offered them a way out of their nightmare existence.

Indeed, they are so mired in a culture of hatred and despotism that it is easier to imagine Bush's former baseball team - the overpaid, cellar-dwelling Texas Rangers - winning the World Series this October than there is that Yasser Arafat and his cronies will go quietly into the night.

The Palestinians shouldn't be expected to be happy with Bush's long-awaited manifesto, because it actually requires them to do what they have demonstrated no intention of doing: make peace with Israel and create something other than a rogue terrorist state on whatever land they wind up with.

By making any progress toward the establishment of a "provisional" state (whatever that is) contingent on the ouster of Arafat, democracy and an end to violence, Bush pretty much ensured that no such thing will happen anytime in the foreseeable future.

After all, if the Palestinian Arabs wanted a separate state and peace - as opposed to the destruction of Israel - they could have had it handed to them on a silver platter by former President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak two years ago. And they could have had it without having to accept Bush's demands for democracy and the rule of law in their statelet.

So entrenched is their political and religious culture of antipathy for the existence of a Jewish state - in any borders - that few people think they will seize this chance.

The small group of Palestinian intellectuals who are publicly calling for an end to suicide bombings, though only for practical rather than moral reasons, have about as much chance of derailing this hugely popular practice as an organization dedicated to banning soccer in Italy or Brazil. You don't mess around with a people's national sport.

So Palestinian dismay at Bush's principled and sensible stand is to be expected.


Harder to understand is the criticism leveled at Bush from some Jews, including many who are ardent friends of Israel.

On the Jewish left - both in Israel and here - there is a great deal of teeth gnashing as people realize that Bush has hammered the last nail in the coffin of Oslo delusions.

For those who preferred to live in the dreamland of the "New Middle East" concocted by current Foreign Minister Shimon Peres soon after signing the Oslo accords, the Bush statement is a bitter pill to swallow.

Israeli Labor Party figures, such as Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and American Peace Now leaders like Letty Cottin Pogrebin, have voiced dismay at Bush's acceptance of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's demand to an end to the violence before any concessions to the Palestinians can kick in.

Rather than follow the advice of all the so-called experts on Middle East peace, such as the insufferable Thomas Friedman of The New York Times (and mediocre imitations of Friedman such as The Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin), and impose a settlement forcing Israel to accommodate Arafat's vicious ambitions, Bush did nothing of the kind.

Instead, he did exactly what sensible Israelis such as Minister Natan Sharansky have called for - challenged the Palestinians to join the family of peace-loving democracies. Then, and only then, and when Israeli security considerations will be respected, can they expect a state of some kind.

The left-wingers' fear is not that Bush is being cynical about calling for Palestinian reforms but that he means what he says. They know if their fantasy of peace is dependent on Palestinian democracy, then they will have been proven wrong. Bush has realized that there are no shortcuts to peace and that if it is not accompanied by a fundamental shift in Palestinian society, any future peace deals are as meaningless as Oslo. It took the collapse of Israeli security and the deaths of hundreds of Jewish men, women and children for this to be made plain to Bush, but the true believers still don't get it.

The left wanted Bush to do to Sharon what the president's father - the first George Bush - did to Yitzhak Shamir over a decade ago: use American power to overturn the will of Israel's democratically elected government and pave the way for a Labor revival.

But this Bush is too sensible to the failures of his father's policies. We should also give the president credit for understanding that relying on Arafat's goodwill and the advice of the Friedmans, as well as of our Arab "allies" in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would be just plain wrong. Instead, his gut instincts to stick with Israel prevailed.


But the left-wingers aren't the only Jews who are looking a gift horse in the mouth this week. On the right, Zionist Organization of America president Mort Klein was even bolder in denouncing Bush's speech than were most on the left.

Considering that Bush's stand gives Sharon all the leeway he asked for and boxed the Palestinians into a corner, what's bugging Klein?

Klein insists that Bush's statements envisioning an eventual Palestinian state are wrong-headed, and asking Israel to make concessions on settlements gives the Palestinians something for nothing. Even the usually on-target Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum think tank agrees with Klein. He believes Bush's overemphasis on Arafat underestimates the fundamental Palestinian goal of destroying Israel, and that Bush's demands on the Palestinians fall far short of what is needed.

That's true, and Klein does have a point when he notes that Palestinian compliance with Bush's demands will be monitored by the State Department. Given its record of lying about Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords and its whitewashing of Palestinian terrorism, I wouldn't trust them to umpire a Little League game, let alone referee Middle East peace.

But the point that Klein and Pipes seem to be missing is that Bush's peace plan is by far the most pro-Israel statement ever made by an American president. No previous chief executive ever came close to mirroring the justified demands of an Israeli government (and one led by Likud at that).

Had Bush wanted to follow the advice of Secretary of State Colin Powell or Saudi Prince Abdullah, would he have placed such stringent conditions on Palestinian statehood? Surely, even a blind person could read between the lines and see what Bush is doing is sticking a fork into the formulations that Bill Clinton and Bush the elder supported. Expecting the present Bush to completely abandon every aspect of what his predecessors supported - as his right-wing critics seem to be demanding - is unrealistic.

The president's speech implicitly recognized that peace is not around the corner and that Israel must be allowed to defend itself until the Palestinians give up their drive for its destruction. This bothers leftists who don't want to admit peace is not in the offing and right-wingers who don't want to hear about Israeli concessions, under even the most theoretical of circumstances.

But these are not good reasons to oppose the president. What Bush has done is to take the first giant step away from the delusions our foreign-policy establishment have embraced for 35 years. That can only help Israel and bring true peace somewhat closer.

Whatever its shortcomings, Bush's stand deserves our support.

Even more than that, in courageously supporting Israel when so many were sure he would not, he has earned our trust.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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