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Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2001 / 9 Teves, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Confounding his critics, Bush is getting it right on terror -- WHEN President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20 to discuss the new war on terrorism, there were some of us who liked what we heard but doubted it would hold up.

When the president said that he intended not just a war on the Al Qaeda murderers responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, but one against all terrorists everywhere, it sounded good.

But could we really believe that he meant it? As marvelous as the president sounded, the next few weeks provided plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

The reluctance of administration spokesmen to speak openly about the ties between Osama bin Laden's crowd and non-Afghani state sponsors of terrorism was troubling. But even worse was Washington's double standard on Palestinian Arab terrorism directed at Israel.

When Israel acted to capture or kill Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists who were operating out of the safe havens of Palestinian Authority territory, the Bush administration harshly condemned the Jewish nation.

Instead of gaining greater understanding from an America that had suffered from terrorism as Israel has, the aftermath of 9/11 seemed to distance the two countries from each other. An emphasis on forming an Arab coalition to back the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan took precedence over America's alliance with Israel. This resulted in the ludicrous spectacle of terror sponsors like Syria and the P.A. being included in the coalition.


Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed to take the hardest line against Israel, and was reportedly responsible for Bush's decision to openly endorse the prospect of a Palestinian state for the first time.

For many Jewish critics of Bush, there appeared to be an easy explanation for his government's tone-deaf approach to Middle East terrorism.

"What do you expect?" many asked. "Bush is the son of one of the most openly anti-Israel American presidents. He is a product of the oil business, and is surrounded by aides who served his father or came themselves from the oil industry."

So even as his approval ratings soared as Americans applauded his post-Sept. 11 behavior, friends of Israel worried.

But this time, the skeptics were wrong. Three months into a clearly successful war on terror, Bush seems not only to be getting it right on Afghanistan, but on Israel and the Palestinians, too.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's complicity in a new terror campaign against Israel that has cost dozens of lives seems to have profoundly affected Bush. Even more to the point, the timing of these attacks to coincide with the arrival of Powell's new envoy to the region, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, has also affected official attitudes toward the Palestinians.

While sources indicate that Powell has not entirely written off Arafat, it seems that Bush has.

The president's comments about Arafat to Jewish leaders who visited the White House last week were scathing, indicating that he has accepted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's evaluation of the old terrorist who either can't or won't take a meaningful stand against terrorism. The brief ascendancy of a pro-Palestinian faction within the administration appears to be over.

But this switch may have an impact on more than just the U.S.-Israel alliance. It seems to promise that, contrary to the expectations of so many experts, Bush actually meant what he said about going after terrorism.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down to a quick and successful conclusion, it's time to start thinking about who the next targets of America's war will be.

And that has to make a lot of people in Bagdahd, Damascus and Gaza pretty nervous.

Support for expanding the war to the terror regime that Bush's father left off the hook in 1991 is growing within the administration, as well as the general public. Finishing off Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would appear to be a logical next step.


One person who had some insight on this question was another two-star general, Jarvis Lynch, who spoke recently at a private reception in the Philadelphia area for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

According to Lynch, a 35-year retired Marine veteran who has been a frequent visitor to Israel via the institute's sponsored trips, a growing consensus within the military seems to indicate that the president is serious about taking this war to the next level.

Whether that means the use of covert forces or open military strength, Lynch believes that "the United States will destroy this evil of terrorism," in places like Iraq, Sudan and Yemen.

Interestingly, he also thought this will mean that "Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad will be dealt with," along with Saddam and bin Laden. Presumably Israel, rather than America, will be the one dealing out the punishment there.

Lynch believes that the successful use of U.S. military power in the region against Islamic terrorists is causing "fear in the Arab world."

Just like many American Jews, few there thought Bush would really do something about bin Laden and the Taliban. The realization that America means business could cause a revolution in their thinking.

"They thought we were soft and cowardly, and didn't respect us," said Lynch. "The Middle East will never be the same again."

It had looked as if the post-Sept. 11 world would be one that wouldn't tolerate Israeli security concerns, but the opposite may be true. Instead of appeasing a Saudi regime that was the source of much of the Islamic fundamentalist terror network's support, the real "new Middle East" may be one where the United States is in a position to change the tide of history against the fundamentalists and their allies.

Just as Bush seemed to be a president in search of a vision, America, since the end of the Cold War and the defeat of communism, has been searching for a set of guiding principles for its foreign policy. It may be that in Bush finding his mission, America has found hers as well.

Unlike the unfinished victory of the Persian Gulf war, things may turn out very differently this time. Bush's anti-terror war may be the beginning of a profound change in both the politics of the region and American foreign policy. This may be a historic moment of opportunity for the United States and the rest of the world. And though it may require a new generation of Arabs to be born and educated for this to happen, the defeat of extremists could eventually give Israel a chance for real peace.

Of course, we are just at the beginning of this effort, and much may go wrong along the way. But last week also provided an omen that may indicate just how revolutionary a moment this may be.

A poll by GOP hired gun Frank Luntz - commissioned by Jewish Republicans at the National Jewish Coalition - appeared to indicate that there was a chance of a shift in Jewish voting patterns. The poll showed that American Jews who normally vote overwhelmingly for Democrats are reconsidering their dismal view of George W. Bush.

While you can dismiss this survey as being influenced by patriotic fervor, Luntz, who is normally skeptical about GOP prospects among Jewish voters, thinks something may be happening.

It may be a stretch to think that realignment is possible, but, like his war on terrorism, Bush may be capable of changing history. After the last three months, no one should underestimate him.

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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