today's news, I think there should be little doubt that President
Bush will go down in history as the most pro-Israel president of
No, no — not
this President Bush. I'm talking about his father, George Herbert
Bush — Dubya — if he keeps going in the direction he's been going,
will be remembered as the president who got so wrapped around the
finger of Ariel Sharon that he indulged Israel into thinking it
really could have it all — settlements, prosperity, peace and democracy
— and in doing so helped contribute to the slow erosion of the Jewish
The first President
Bush, by contrast, was ready to tell Israel and the Jewish lobby
some very hard truths after the first Gulf war: that expanding settlements
would harm Israel's long-term interests, would shrink the prospects
for peace and would help undermine America's standing in the Arab
world. And it was also the elder Mr. Bush who backed his secretary
of state, James Baker, enough for Mr. Baker to twist Arabs' arms
to get them to sit down, en masse, for the first time with Israel
at the Madrid peace conference.
George Bush is going to get a second chance to wrestle with this
issue, now that the peace process is being revived. And the question
for me is: will he show up as Bush 41 or Bush 43?
This is a critical
moment. For the first time, the Palestinians have produced a prime
minister, Mahmoud Abbas; a finance minister, Salam Fayyad; and a
security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, who understand how badly the Palestinian
Authority lacked proper institutions and how disastrous for the
Palestinian people was the Arafat strategy of suicide terrorism
and double talk with Israel.
When U.S. officials
speak about the importance of reform in the Arab world, this new
Palestinian team — even with its warts, and it has plenty — is the
kind we should want to see empowered. But Mr. Abbas's success is
not assured. Yasir Arafat and his cronies are still in charge and
they want Mr. Abbas, Mr. Arafat's former underling, to fail. Mr.
Abbas must deliver Israel security, but Mr. Sharon also needs to
deliver for him, by improving Palestinian daily life and rolling
up some of the renegade outposts that Mr. Sharon just let Jewish
settlers erect in the West Bank, without a peep from the Bush team.
And this takes
us back to this President Bush — 43. He helped create the conditions
to bring Mr. Abbas to power, both by refusing to deal with Mr. Arafat
and by deposing Saddam Hussein. And Mr. Bush's speech on Friday
laying out a vision for a new Middle East, based on free trade,
was excellent. But from the start, his administration has been long
on road maps and short on drivers. If Mr. Bush is going to travel
the road he has paved, he is going to have to step up his Middle
East diplomatic game, with sustained energy, focus and toughness.
He will have
to halt the attacks on Colin Powell from the Pentagon and make clear,
for once, that he stands behind his secretary of state; tell both
the Christian right and the Likud-run Conference of Presidents of
Major American Jewish Organizations that he is not going to let
them block his path by their support for the lunatic Israeli settler
movement; and tell the Arab leaders it is put-up-or-shut-up time:
that means helping to ease out Mr. Arafat and taking steps to accept
the Jewish state.
We know the
way. The question is, does Mr. Bush have the will?
With the U.S.
having eliminated the most powerful threat to Israel — the regime
of Saddam Hussein — one would think Mr. Sharon would pounce on this
opportunity. Instead, Mr. Sharon has thrown up all sorts of delaying
tactics. Alas, Mr. Sharon is following one of the iron rules of
Middle East politics: When I am weak, how can I compromise? When
I am strong, why should I compromise?
If this opportunity
is lost, it could be the end of the two-state solution. The Jewish
settlers will have won, and Israel will de facto retain all the
territories. The Arab world will disengage from the whole peace
process, and the Iraq war will be interpreted as a U.S. move to
make the Middle East safe for Mr. Sharon's housing settlements,
not for a peace settlement. The radicals will completely take over
in the Palestinian camp. And more and more young American Jews will
quietly drift away from Israel, as they see Israel turn from a Jewish
democracy to a country where a Jewish minority forcibly rules over
a Palestinian majority.
So, for all
these reasons, I'm hoping the younger Mr. Bush is listening to the
elder Mr. Bush.