Washington is being toothless on Israel

Above: President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon walk through the Rose Garden colonnade after their joint press conference Tuesday, July 29, 2003. (White House/Paul Morse)


US President George W. Bush’s administration is considering economic measures to prevent Israel from building its separation wall in the occupied West Bank. The proposed punishment is to subtract from US loan guarantees for Israel $1 for every dollar Israel spends on building the barrier inside the West Bank. AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington, estimates the cost of the barrier at $1 million per kilometer, and much of the 640-kilometer barrier has been or will be built inside the occupied areas.

Such a move would reflect concerns expressed by Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell that the wall makes achieving a two-state solution more difficult. However, the administration appears to be split. Bush embodied this ambivalence recently at the White House by criticizing the wall when standing next to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas one day, and saying nothing the next when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon openly defied him, insisting the wall would be built.

Powell, meanwhile, has been the subject of press speculation that he and his deputy, Richard Armitage, would not serve in a second Bush administration. Powell dismissed the reports as “nonsense” and “rumor,” but on 6 August, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd saw in the story an attempt by Powell’s neoconservative rivals to dislodge him in favor of one of their own. Dowd observed: “Just as the neocons made their move on Powell, pro-Israel hawks scorned the secretary for not being on their team in the peace process. Israel’s supporters scoffed at the new threat to cut loan guarantees as a State Department policy, not a White House policy.”

Such infighting does nothing to convince Israel or anyone else that Washington is serious and determined to pursue the “road map.”

For the Bush administration, the situation could be an uncomfortable reprise of an earlier episode involving the administration of former US President George H.W. Bush. In 1991, the elder Bush imposed an almost identical punishment on Israel to force the Israeli government to attend the Madrid Peace Conference. However, settlement construction continued, derailing a nascent peace process. At the time, the president’s comment that he was “one lonely little guy” up against “something like a thousand (pro-Israel) lobbyists on the hill working the other side of the question,” earned him the lasting enmity of the pro-Israel lobby and may have helped lose him the 1992 election. Then Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton seized on the comment in the campaign, accusing Bush of breaking down “the taboo against overt anti-Semitism.” In American political terms such accusations are poison.

As the 2004 elections approach, Democrats and Republicans are again competing to make fervent pledges of allegiance to Israel. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, recently toured Israel and addressed the Knesset, even as Bush was receiving the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in Washington. DeLay’s speech was so strident that it prompted a Labor Party lawmaker to remark that DeLay was more extreme than even the Likud. Prior to his trip, DeLay displayed an almost racist view of Palestinians, while openly challenging Bush’s stated goal of a Palestinian state by declaring: “I can’t imagine this president supporting a state of terrorists, a sovereign state of terrorists.” Not to be outdone, a delegation of 29 Democratic congressmen will head for Israel this month. Leading Democrats were among the first to condemn withholding loan guarantees to Israel because of the wall.

The lack of any serious debate about Israel in the US political arena is perhaps best illustrated by the attitude of Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential hopeful. Dean has generated enthusiasm among liberals because he vocally opposed the war in Iraq and supports universal healthcare. Yet when it comes to Israel, Dean takes no risks.

Dean was asked last November by the Jewish weekly, The Forward, whether he supported the views of the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now, or those of AIPAC, which backs the Sharon government to the hilt. He answered: “My view is closer to AIPAC’s view.” Dean’s official Statement of Principles on the Middle East Peace Process supports a two-state solution, but says that, “to get there, the Palestinian Authority will have to fight terrorism and violence.” Yet he has not had a word to say about Israeli violence that has killed three Palestinians for every Israeli in the past three years and rendered intolerable the lives of millions of people. The leading candidates’ views get only more hawkish.

With the political fundamentals in Washington being what they are, any action that the Bush administration takes to confront Sharon is likely to be timid at best. Sharon probably knows this, and his defiance did not stop at his White House pledge to pursue building the wall. As soon as Sharon returned to Israel, his government announced tenders for 22 new housing units for Jewish settlers in Gaza. This prompted the State Department to protest that a “freeze is a freeze.”
And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Last May, Israel’s housing minister, Effie Eitam, announced plans to build almost 12,000 new housing units in the occupied territories - a fact virtually ignored by the Bush administration. In early August, Israel’s Haaretz daily reported, Eitam announced a major new financial incentive plan to encourage increasingly impoverished Israelis to move to the settlements.

Thus, with no check on Israel, the road map could be in an impasse. The one factor focusing some attention on Israel’s rejectionist policy is the decision of the different Palestinian factions to respect a cease-fire against Israeli civilians. Hopefully, the factions will have the wisdom to maintain this, despite Israel’s provocations and Washington’s inaction.

This article first appeared in The Daily Star on 9 August 2003.