Next week, the President of the United States, George W. Bush will pay a formal visit to Israel and to the Palestinian Authority. On the eve of his arrival, the major unanswered question is where exactly does the President stand? Actually, we do know not for sure, because he has not really tipped his cards.
In the past, presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton also came to Israel. While such visits have been associated with peacemaking in various forms, their results have been mixed. For example, when President Clinton visited Gaza in December 1998, he permitted himself to be used by participating with Yasser Arafat in an empty ceremony where the Palestinians pretended to abrogate of the clauses of their Charter which called for the annihilation of the State of Israel. And who can forget Suha Arafat's antisemitic obscenities in the presence of a passive Hilary Clinton? Perhaps one should overlook such embarrassing moments. Nonetheless, they are significant because they reflect a mistaken perception of the basic facts. Today, as in Clinton's time, American policy makers are unable to understand that the Palestinians reject a solution which would result in their formal acceptance of the Jewish State and end their policy of terror, incitement to
violence, and targeting of innocent Israeli civilians.
Last week, Aluf Benn, the diplomatic reporter of Haaretz, again pointed out that Secretary of state Rice over-identifies with the Palestinian cause, viewing the reality of this region according to an over-simplified and superficial personal perspective. She considers the Israelis to be in the same category as the racist white supremacists of the American South, the oppressors whom she knew in her youth, and the Palestinians to be their innocent victims. Justice for her is on the Palestinian side.
At the end of November 2007, Secretary of State Rice launched an attempt to get the Security Council of the United Nations to adopt the plan of the Annapolis Conference in the form of a resolution and thus formally give this body the legal right to intervene in the conflict. When this unilateral effort became known to the Israeli government, its leadership firmly protested. Ultimately, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the U.N., withdrew this motion with considerable embarrassment. This episode reveals a type of shabbiness not seen since the days of Jimmy Carter or James Baker III. Through her actions, the Secretary of State effectively demonstrated her unsuitability as an honest broker.
While Secretary of State Rice has clearly articulated her own views, President Bush's views remain unclear, mainly because he has been projecting a different message. President and Mrs. Bush have made special efforts to build and maintain cordial relations with the American Jewish community as well as individual Jews. Last month, they hosted a Hanukah celebration at the White House. Among the honored guests were Judea and Ruth Pearl, parents of the journalist Daniel Pearl whom terrorists murdered in Pakistan. The President also entertained former refusnik Yuli Edelstein, now a member of the Knesset, along with other American Jewish leaders. It is less known that Bush has discretely met with representatives of the settlers of Judea and Samaria and, with tears in his eyes, listened to their case. Further, he was captivated by the ideas articulated in The Case for Democracy
, a best selling book by Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer. Bush publicly honored Sharansky with an invitation to White House and worked some of his ideas into American foreign policy. Indeed, the President has remarked that the book explained what he believed and that Sharansky's ideas were part of his DNA.
There is a certain "disconnect" here. On the one hand, President Bush definitely has warm feelings for Jews and Israel. On the other, Secretary of State Rice, who has accepted the Palestinian narrative, is pursuing a policy which is clearly unfriendly to Israel. It should be added that she bears considerable responsibility for the dangerous situation in Gaza. Rice forced Israel to accept an open border crossing between Gaza and Egypt (November 2005) and pressed for Palestinian elections which brought Hamas into power (January 2006). These have been costly miscalculations. In the years to come, neither the President nor the Secretary of State will be around, but others, namely Israelis and Palestinians, will have to pay the full price for the harm they have done.
According to the Constitution, the Secretary of State is directly responsible to the President, and it is the President who is ultimately responsible for American foreign policy. While the State Department has its distinctive culture, ultimately it is the President who decides. One outstanding example of this relationship was President Truman's decision to recognize the State of Israel in 1948, despite fierce State Department opposition. In reality, if the President wants a certain policy, he can get his way.
However, there may be another explanation for the current state of affairs, namely that George W. Bush is the "sayer of smooth things" but actually supports the State Department policy, because Condoleezza Rice does the dirty work. The name of this game is "good cop, bad cop" or "mutt-and-jeffing."
The logical question that follows is whether the present American policy is really to the President's liking, or has the Secretary of State overwhelmed him. The answer is not clear, but the President should let us know. If indeed President Bush really cares for Israel, he should prove it. On his coming visit, he has an excellent opportunity to drop America's one-sided policy and adopt an approach which is just and equitable.
Dr. Joel Fishman is a Fellow at a research institute in Jerusalem.