Posted on May 24, 2004 in Washington Watch

The Middle East policy debate, here in the United States, has sunk to a shamefully low level. As Israeli forces ravage Gaza, laying waste to its people and their property, neither the President nor his opponents appear to even wince in recognition of the damage done.

Speaking at the annual conference of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – the Israeli lobby), Bush delivered a message that made him sound more like a Sharon acolyte than the advocate of the “Roadmap to Peace.” As tragic footage of the aftermath of an Israeli bombing of a Palestinian march showed on U.S. and international television screens, Bush praised the way “Israel has defended itself with skill and heroism,” and acknowledged that state’s “right to defend itself from terror.”

The President’s only mention of the ongoing nightmare was a cautiously phrased reference to the unfolding violence in the Gaza Strip, which he added “is troubling and underscores the need for all parties to seize every opportunity for peace.”

That was quickly followed by praise of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “bold and courageous” withdrawal proposal. And a stinging challenge to the Palestinians to reject corruption, failed leadership, and violence.

The AIPAC audience cheered wildly: 24 standing ovations, by one count, and enthusiastic cheers of “four more years.” That, after all, was what the Bush appearance and speech was all about.

The GOP reelection strategy is counting on receiving about one-third of the Jewish vote – which they have identified, rightly or wrongly, as based solely driven by strong support for Israeli policy. (In fact, polls show that a significant majority of American Jews reject a hard-line view and favor a more evenhanded U.S. policy.) In the Republican calculation, this would double their 2000 tally, shifting a few hundred thousand voters from the Democratic candidate. More than that, however, is the GOP strategist’s view that if a policy plays well with hard-line pro-Israel American Jews, then it is certain to please the core Republican voter groups of Christian right-wingers. With that group now representing about one quarter of U.S. voters, they, more than the AIPAC audience, were the real target of Bush’s strong support for Sharon.

It is important to note that the intellectual underpinnings for the White House’s effort have been provided by the neo-conservative movement. They are responsible for the President’s overall Middle East message. In this view, failed U.S. policy and Israel’s behavior bear no responsibility for terror or instability. Rather the blame falls solely on the Arab’s shoulders. Therefore, the neo-cons project that the cornerstones of U.S. policy should be: support for Israel as the U.S.’s only democratic ally in the war on terror and insistence that the Palestinians, in particular, and Arabs, in general, reform as the prerequisite to any forward movement toward peace (as Netanyahu would say “only democracies can make peace.”)

This “message” has been the justification for the war with Iraq, the White House’s “reform” initiative, the U.S.’s interpretation of the “Road Map” (i.e. Arafat must go and reform must occur as the first step) and the support for Israel’s post-April, 2002 destruction of the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure.

This “message” has allowed Bush to feign support for a “vision of two states” while blaming the weakest party, the Palestinians, for the failure to make it real and giving Israel “carte blanc” to fight the “enemies of peace.”

Though disconnected from reality, in the mindset created by the new-cons, all of this appears as rational, coherent, and constructive.

The problem, of course is that there has been no real challenge to this fantasy scheme. Democrats have either accepted it or are afraid to take issue with its premises. As a result, the best the Administration’s opponents can do is to criticize the President’s “failure to engage” and work more aggressively for peace.

Polls show, however, that most Americans have not been won over to this view. Recent surveys demonstrate that Americans largely reject Sharon’s occupation policies, feel that the Israeli leader is more of a “risk” to the U.S. than an “ally,” and are concerned that U.S. policy is too one-sided and unbalanced.

On all three questions there is a substantial partisan split, with Democrats overwhelmingly rejecting the one-sided pro-Israel orientation of U.S. policy and Republicans, of course, endorsing it.

What the White House is banking on is that the hard-line pro-Sharon voters in their camp will vote for the President on the basis of their intense support for his message while those opposed rate Middle East issues of only secondary importance.

What is disturbing here is that the President is not just “campaigner-in-chief,” he is also Commander in Chief and therefore what he says and does impacts more than an election campaign. It affects world affairs and the U.S.’s standing in the world community. In this context, the administration’s strict adherence to the simplistic neo-conservative ideological line, while playing well among their core voters, has done great damage to U.S. policy in Palestine and Iraq, with a negative spillover in the broader Arab World, as well.

Recognizing this, Secretary of State Colin Powell (who some now refer to as “Shimon” Powell) has soldiered on, struggling between imposed political constraints and the need to send the region and the world a different message. This was in evidence last week as Powell spoke more critically of the Israeli action in Gaza than did the White House. For his part, Powell said that the Israeli actions had “worsened the situation and, I think, made it more difficult for us to move forward and get back into the peace process.” He ultimately prevailed in a U.S. decision to abstain on a U.N. Security Council vote critical of Israeli policies. This was followed by a statement from the White House spokesperson, who noted, “While we believe that Israel has the right to act to defend itself and its citizens, we do not see that its operations in Gaza in the last few days serve the purposes of peace and security.” Though little and late, reality won a round over ideology.

There is a policy debate waiting to be engaged. Most U.S. diplomats in the Middle East would welcome it, as would many in the U.S. military. They are on the front lines and see clearly the impact that this failed ideologically driven policy is having in the region. The majority of the American people would welcome such a debate, as well. All that is required is political leadership to initiate the effort.

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