“I hope he will be better than his father”

Israelis worry, and Palestinians hope, that a new Bush administration will be tougher on them than Clinton was.

Topics: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Middle East,

"I hope he will be better than his father"

Following Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s meetings with President Clinton on Tuesday, both Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to continue discussing a recent American framework proposal for peace in the Middle East. But the chances for President Clinton to eke out a peace agreement before leaving office Jan. 20 remain slim.

Stuck between low-level talks and low-level war, violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories is likely to simmer for a long time. The more pressing question is: Under the incoming Bush administration, will United States policy in the region remain the same?

Clinton’s intense personal involvement in the peace process will be a hard act for Bush to follow, most analysts agree. But they are divided over whether Bush’s administration will be a throwback to his father’s era, and whether a U.S. policy change would be desirable.

“I hope he will be better than his father,” said Yitzhak Shamir, a veteran Israeli statesman who was Israel’s prime minister during the former Bush administration. “The old Bush was not very sympathetic to me,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

During the Gulf War, Israel and the United States butted heads over striking back at Iraq. In keeping with its tough-guy policy, Israel wanted to punish Saddam Hussein for his Scud missile attacks on the Jewish state but the U.S. opposed further involvement against Iraq. “Israel was ready to do something against Iraq. But Bush was against it. So we did nothing,” said Shamir.

At the time, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney was secretary of defense and Colin Powell, the future secretary of state, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Cheney was good enough,” recalls Shamir. “Powell, in my opinion is good for us. I read his memoirs: He wrote about the Jewish people, the Jewish language … he was sympathetic enough. Generally, in my opinion, the Americans are the best non-Jews.”

Moshe Arens, a right-wing member of the Israeli parliament who was Israel’s defense minister at the time Cheney headed the Pentagon, agrees: “I think [Cheney] is a very good friend of Israel.”

Beyond questions of personal chemistry, most Israelis seem confident that the generally pro-Israeli tilt of past U.S. administrations will be carried on into the next one. “The foundation of the American-Israeli relationship is very sound. It has been good under Republicans and Democrats. It’s based on common values and common strategic interests,” said Arens.

That said, the general expectation is that Bush will be a less influential peace broker than Clinton was. “According to Bush’s own statements on the peace process, there’s likely to be less hands-on American involvement,” noted Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. “But even Gore, looking at the resources Clinton expended in the process, would have said ‘OK, we overdid it, let’s be less involved.’

“I expect Bush to pursue a more aggressive policy towards Iraq, because of the oil interest and perhaps to finish the business of his father,” Alpher continued. There is also speculation that the U.S. will try to revive the stalled Syrian-Israeli peace track and attempt to be more open with Iran because of pressure from oil companies to deal with that nation’s relatively stable regime and invest in its oil sector, the way European companies have. “Generally, I expect the Bush administration to pay more attention to the Gulf because of oil,” he said.

Some Israelis will greet the decrease in daily nitty-gritty U.S. attention with relief. “I personally think that the level of involvement [of the Clinton administration] is unhealthy,” said Arens, the former defense minister. “When the U.S. is overly involved, it is forced to be neutral. But the U.S. isn’t a neutral country. Strategically and historically, it’s an ally of Israel.”

Palestinians find cause for hope and cheer for different reasons. The optimists are happy to see the departure of the so-called “American-Jewish rabbis in the State Department,” says Mahdi Abdulhadi, the head of a Palestinian think tank based in Jerusalem. Palestinians tend to make much of the fact that several members of Clinton’s Middle East team were Jewish and formed a group “more Israeli than the Israelis,” in Abdulhadi’s words.

“They look forward to seeing new faces, new lines in the State Department as well as in the media, the Pentagon, the CIA,” said Abdulhadi. “There is hope that the Republicans will come with a different agenda, more favorable to American-Arab interests.” Palestinians and their allies also hope Bush will realize that in the seven years since the signing of the Oslo agreement, Israel has continued to confiscate Arab land, build settlements and failed to implement signed agreements, said the Palestinian analyst.

Abdulhadi and others are also reassured by the presence of Cheney and Powell in the new U.S. administration. They form the “old guard of the Bush administration: They know the name of the game. They won’t sit idly for six months while Bush gets an education,” he said.

However, it’s unclear whether the Middle East will continue to be a U.S. priority and whether Bush’s team will jump in to supplement the current lack of vision and strategy on both Israeli and Palestinian sides. Clinton was credited with a level of charm and charisma that did much to egg the peace process forward. But on substantive issues, many Palestinians would rather see Bush follow in his father’s footsteps than blindly take up Clinton’s mantle.

The elder Bush is seen as the president who initiated the peace process and spelled out the general principles of the negotiations in letters of invitation to the Madrid Conference in 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War. These principles were that negotiations would be based on trading “land for peace” and on U.N. Resolution 242. By contrast, the Clinton administration “has been issuing bridging proposals that undermine the terms of references designed by Bush and Baker,” said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst based in Jerusalem. “Let’s hope that Bush, the son, will be more committed to the spirit and letter of the principles set by Bush, the father.”

But given the president-elect’s reported lack of interest in foreign affairs and tendency to delegate, Bush may be tempted to stick to the outline of Clinton’s latest proposals. “I think Bush was very sincere when he wished Clinton good luck in finishing the job. Bush would rather not have this [peace process] on his plate,” said Alpher, the Israeli analyst.

“If there’s a deal, and it would be at best a very generalized framework agreement before the Israeli elections in February, there will be a lot left to negotiate,” said Alpher. “Bush, through Condoleezza Rice, said this summer that the U.S. wouldn’t be as pushy as in the past, wouldn’t set the agenda and timetable for the negotiations. What if Ariel Sharon is elected and starts stonewalling on the peace process? Will Bush start pressuring Sharon? I don’t think so.”

Arens is confident that U.S. policy will depend largely on the Israeli government. “The U.S. is helpful when Israel requires help. U.S. interventions come at Israel’s request.” Countervailing Palestinian lobbying efforts have been traditionally very weak in Washington. The Palestinian Authority only hired a group of lobbyists headed by Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul-general to Jerusalem, a year ago. In the past, other Arab lobbies have been too divided to be effective in promoting Palestinian interests, according to Abdulhadi.

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Ultimately, “the most important input in the U.S. policy towards the Middle East will be what happens in the Middle East, not Washington. Policy will be reactive,” predicted Alpher. “Basically, Americans want oil to flow and stability in the region. The vicissitudes of war and peace are going to determine a lot of what this administration does.”

Reaction to the incoming Bush administration isn’t too different in the United States, though advocates for the Israeli and Arab communities here suggest that it is premature to predict whether George W. Bush will follow in his father’s footsteps when he asks his administration to draft its Middle East policy. Bush has said little about Middle East peace, but his scarce public comments do suggest that the U.S. will remain a close ally of Israel.

At a Dec. 16 press conference just after he became president-elect, Bush, introducing designated Secretary of State Powell, told reporters, “We will defend America’s interest in the Persian Gulf and advance peace in the Middle East, based, as any lasting peace must be, on a secure Israel.” Powell then said that the Bush administration would “remain engaged” in the Middle East peace process and would “deal with the aspirations of the Palestinians and other nations in the region who have an interest in this.” However, Powell didn’t specify what degree of priority Middle East peace would be given under the new administration.

Bush has made clear, in repeated campaign speeches, that Middle East peace would likely play second fiddle to concerns about U.S. relations with Russia and China, ties to European and Asian allies, the development of a missile defense system and trade issues.

And at the Oct. 17 presidential debate in St. Louis, just after the onset of the current battling between Israelis and Palestinians, Bush said: “[S]hould I be president, Israel’s going to be our friend. I’m going to stand by Israel.” But he also stressed the importance of making overtures to moderate Arab nations that already enjoy strong relations with the U.S., including Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. At the time, gas prices were still soaring in the United States, and Bush, a longtime friend of big oil, offered a straightforward answer to the importance of regional stability in the Middle East. “It’s also important to keep strong ties … because of the energy crisis we’re in now. After all, a lot of energy is produced from the Middle East.”

It was Bush’s decision to put former Secretary of State James Baker in charge of his Florida recount team that probably raised the most eyebrows. Under former President Bush, Baker applied firm pressure on the Israelis to kick-start the peace process. He is widely known for having allegedly said, in response to criticism, “Fuck the Jews; they don’t vote for us anyway.” Baker’s spokesperson denied the allegation, telling the New Republic in 1992, “It is outrageous. It is garbage.” But few believed him since, as the New Republic pointed out, the denial came well after rumors of the comments had become the talk of the chattering class. But pro-Israeli lobbyists in Washington are willing to cut Bush some slack for his relationship with Baker.

Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, the most powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, says it’s not fair to say that President-elect Bush’s Middle East policy will mirror that of his father. “Are we especially concerned about George W. Bush and his views on Israel? The indications he gave throughout the campaign, including his comments directly to our organization, were consistent with U.S. policy, which supports an active American role in seeking peaceful resolution of the conflict, while at the same time raising no questions about America’s friendship and support for Israel.”

Nonetheless, Isaacson doesn’t believe it will be possible for Bush to get as enthusiastic about the peace process as his predecessor, who was under consideration for a Nobel Peace Prize for his Middle East efforts more than once during his two terms as president. “It’s hard to imagine anyone devoting as much time and energy to Middle East peace as Clinton has,” Isaacson says. Still, Isaacson says that Powell and Rice are both popular in Israel. “I believe Colin Powell is well regarded. Condoleezza Rice, who spent five days visiting Israel last summer, left a very strong impression that she is sympathetic and understands the complexities of the situation.”

But one of Bush’s first foreign policy challenges after he assumes the presidency Jan. 20 will be to decide quickly whether the United States should remain as engaged in the peace process as it has. Among the changes that could be in store, Isaacson says, is a shakeup of the Office of the Special Middle East Coordinator — an office that straddles the fence between the White House and the State Department with a quasi ambassador structure — run by U.S. mediators Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller. “There is talk of changing the team,” Isaacson says.

Despite his failure to broker a peace deal in the Middle East, and the perception that he often tilted toward Israel, some in the Arab-American community seem sorry to see Clinton go. James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, says it will be hard for Bush to match Clinton as a cheerleader for Middle East peace. “The obvious difference,” he says, “will be the personal investment. Clinton was different in a way than anyone since Jimmy Carter.” He praised Clinton’s ability to “reach over the heads of the leadership and reach out to the public opinion” of the countries and communities involved in the peace process.

Zogby also notes that the Arab world has been radically transformed since the days of the previous Bush administration. George W. Bush will have to deal with an Arab world that is newly assertive — especially in dealing with oil and Iraq — after displaying the relative passivity that permitted the peace process to move forward immediately after the Madrid summit and the Gulf War. Not only will Bush have to deal with Arab sensitivities, but also with a deeply divided Israel.

Meanwhile, the growing population of Russian Jews in Israel — who make up nearly 20 percent of the country’s population today, many of whom don’t speak Hebrew and influence and radicalize Israel’s religious right — will complicate efforts for a peace pact between Israel and the Palestinians, Zogby says. “The region is certainly less hospitable than it was eight years ago.”

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.
Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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