Posted on December 04, 2000 in Washington Watch

If George W. Bush becomes the next president of the United States, he will most probably be given a short honeymoon in the Arab world. Al Gore will not.

There are serious strains in the U.S.–Arab relationship these days. They are born of the U.S. bias toward Israel, anger over the mounting Palestinian death toll and frustration with what appears to be a dead-end Iraq policy.

In this context, some Arabs harbor the feeling that a Bush Administration might be more responsive to Arab concerns. This attitude is not based so much on conviction or evidence as it is on assumption. Neither the Republican Party platform nor George W. Bush’s Middle East policy positions expressed during the campaign can be pointed to as justification for the belief that a Bush presidency will be better for the Arab world. Quite simply put, the sense that a Bush presidency will be more pro-Arab derives from the assumption that the Texas Governor and his vice presidential running mate Dick Cheney are the heirs of the George Herbert Walker Bush legacy.

Gore, on the other hand, is not seen as continuing a Clinton legacy. Clinton had developed a positive image in some quarters in the Arab world. In the aftermath of the failed Camp David summit, the President lost some of his luster. But even those who once held Clinton in a positive light did not extend that to Al Gore. The Vice President was defined more by his earlier speeches advocating the U.S.-Israeli relationship than by his partnership with Bill Clinton in the search for a Middle East peace.

During the long presidential campaign both candidates made interesting moves to reposition themselves on Middle East issues. George W. Bush initially sought to distance himself from his father’s legacy. Most of his early advisors were either hard core neo-conservatives or former Reagan officials. In his initial policy speeches the Texas Governor struck a fairly consistent pro-Israel tone. In appearances before Jewish audiences he promised to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and even criticized the Clinton Administration for putting too much pressure on Israel.

Later in the campaign, however, Bush moved his views more toward the center. He downplayed, for example, the embassy issue and expressed more support for Clinton’s efforts. After the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence, both Bush and Cheney made near identical statements blaming the Palestinians for the violence and pledging support for Israel, but on one occasion Bush acknowledged the importance of U.S. ties to a number of Arab allies. This was grasped by some in the Arab world as evidence of Bush’s sense of balance.

Gore, on the other hand, early in the campaign, sough to move ever so slightly in the opposite direction. He maintained that he would not move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem unless it was agreed to by the Israelis and Palestinians (although he acknowledged that he believed that such an agreement and move would ultimately take place). And he startled an AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby) conference by concluding his address before them with a long appeal for the U.S. to reach out to the broader Arab and Muslim world to achieve greater understanding. When Gore met with Arab Americans he affirmed his friendship with Israel but noted, as well, that during the past eight years he had developed friendships with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority.

Governor Bush’s appointment of fellow Texas oilman and former Bush Cabinet member Dick Cheney reinforced the view of some Arabs that despite his words he would be a friend. In a similar vein, Gore’s appointment of Senator Joseph Lieberman only reinforced Arab fears of Gore’s pro-Israel leanings. Though unfair and overly simplistic, an Arab friend characterized one Arab view of this contest as not so much a race between the Republican Texas Governor and the Democratic Vice President as one between “Daddy Bush and Joe Lieberman.”

As a result, even as both Gore and Lieberman attempted to reach out to Arab Americans, they had difficulties convincing some of their good intentions. In the end, Bush’s efforts were praised, while Gore’s were dismissed as not enough.

The events of the post-election period only served to play out these same perceptions. Bush’s appointment of former Bush Secretary of State James Baker to head his team in Florida and his discussion with former Bush Administration Joint Chiefs’ of Staff Chairman Colin Powell brought comfort to those Arabs who saw these moves as validating of their hopes that a George W. Bush Administration would be a reincarnation of his father’s White House.

Al Gore, on the other hand, became even more suspect by those who expressed concern that the uncounted votes Gore was seeking to have added to his tally came from Jewish areas of Florida and also included an unknown amount of absentee ballots from U.S. citizens living in Israel.

These are perceptions and not necessarily reality. In fact, most U.S. analysts believe that there would be little difference in the actual Middle East policies pursued by either a Bush or Gore administration. The Clinton Administration inherited from the Bush Administration both a flawed Middle East peace process that included separate Israel-centered tracks with no PLO participation, and an unforgiving sanctions policy against Iraq. They managed both situations adhering to a bipartisan set of tactics and goals–doing very little that was different from the policies set by their predecessors.

So too the next Administration, for better or worse, will inherit the same two conflicts and the same failed bipartisan approach on how to deal with them.

Unless there is a dramatic reassessment of American Middle East policy and a strong leadership push from the next Administration to challenge both Congress and the failed bipartisan approach to the region, they will end up dealing with Middle East issues in much the same way as the last two Administrations.

The reality is that Bush will not be the Arab savior, nor will Gore be the demon. But in foreign policy as in domestic politics, perception is reality. And so Bush, if he is elected, will most probably be given a short honeymoon in the Arab world. Given the crisis in U.S.-Arab relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he will need to carve out a new policy. He will, however, be given, for a time, the benefit of the doubt as he finds his way. Gore, if he wins, in all probability, will not be given such a grace period and will, therefore, have a more difficult first few months in office.

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