Sunday, May 11, 2008

Is Israel’s trust in Bush warranted?

24 May, 2008
President Bush visited Israel as part of her 60th anniversary celebrations and found an enthusiastic and receptive audience, something absent almost everywhere else in the world. His follow-up trips to Saudi Arabia and Egypt only confirmed his lack of credibility in the region. And while some may find this comforting, a regional rather than local view should give pause even to those most optimistic among us.

When in memory have the Saudis defied a presidential request? During his visit to Riyadh Bush was told “no” for the second time this year for his simple request that the Saudis increase oil production to bring down the price of gas at American pumps in an election year. And he apparently fared no better at Sharm; in fact the only public statement to even make a headline, beyond the Saudi “no” was that Mahmud Abbas had for the umpteenth time threatened to resign if Bush failed to deliver Israel on Palestinian terms.

In the weeks before the Bush visit three issues hit the press: Talansky, Kadish and Congress. What all three share is that they all originated in the United States, and all pose potential harm to Israel and her interests. I suggest that all three are connected, part of an administration-orchestrated pay-back to Olmert for turning his back on the impossible Palestinian peace track in favor of the more mature and promising Syrians.

Were it not for the fact that all three incidents involved Israel rather than a contender for office in the United States, the last few weeks might have been mistaken for “dirty tricks” in the heat of an American political campaign. Morris Talansky, an orthodox rabbi from New York and past fund-raiser for both Bush and Olmert, mysteriously appears with “strong evidence of new and grave corruption charges” against the prime minister. Then there was that highly publicized arrest of octogenarian Ben-Ami Kadish on charges of spying for Israel, twenty-five and more years ago. And finally, Bush decides it is a good time to make public to Congress secret and sensitive Israeli intelligence related to the September, 2007 destruction of the Syrian reactor. Three incidents in as many weeks, all with one thing in common: each could potentially harm Israel diplomatically and even, in the case of the Syrian reactor, militarily. Coincidental, unrelated?

How harm Israel? In the case of the reactor the public disclosure risked provoking a retaliatory strike by Syria which might easily have spiraled out of control (see below). Public disclosure by Bush compromised Israeli intelligence methods and agents in Syria, reducing the quality of the former while risking the lives of the latter. In fact Olmert was taken to task by his intelligence community for passing raw intelligence to Bush for precisely this reason. Why did Bush decide to go public with the details now? Was the risk to the lives of those Israeli sources in Syria, the possibility of war between the enemies no longer important?

Then, within days of the Congressional disclosures, the FBI raided that New Jersey nursing home to arrest Kadish from his bed. If his arrest twenty-five years after the events charged was intended to embarrass American Jewry and Israel, as occurred in the 1985 arrest of Jonathan Jay Pollard, then the result was a failure. Images of FBI agents hauling a confused old man, a zayde, from his nursing home bed more than neutralized any damage to, or distancing between Israel and the American Jewish community.

Three major incidents, each originating in the US, each targeting Israel; some might say the entire chain of events mere coincident, conjecture, the stringing together of otherwise unrelated incidents. I suggest not, that when seen against the backdrop of Bush political campaigning and administration decision-making these “unrelated” incidents fit an all-too-familiar pattern.

In his recent memoir, retired CIA Director George Tennant describes President Bush as someone he respects and likes, but also as a person of little toleration for opposition, loyal or not. In this regard recall that before the invasion of Iraq the CIA sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger to confirm that Sadam was purchasing yellow cake as part of his nuclear weapons program. Since the yellow cake purchase was a key justification used by the administration to invade, confirming the purchase was essential. When Wilson found no evidence for the asserted purchase the White House rejected his findings. With war and peace in the balance Wilson decided to go public with the information. The White House retaliated by going public with the identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA agent working under-cover on an assignment of risk. Disclosing the identity of a CIA agent is not only dangerous to the agent but is also a serious federal crime.

This incident throws a cold light on the character of Bush the man and his administration. And this is the key to understanding those “three incidents:” Prime Minister Olmert deviated from the role Bush scripted for Israel. And the administration responded.

Several weeks before the Bush visit Olmert informed the Palestinians that Israel was prepared to return 64% of the West Bank and would allow free Palestinian access to their holy places in Jerusalem, united under Israeli sovereignty in exchange for peace. But at Camp David eight years earlier Israel had agreed to return 96% of the West Bank plus parts of the Old City and East Jerusalem suburbs for the Palestinian capital, al Quds. Olmert’s proposal was obviously a non-starter for end-game negotiations, an end to Bush’s impossible dream of success for his Road Map in the waning hours of his presidency. And salt on the wound, soon after Olmert’s deal breaker to Abbas Syrian president Assad disclosed that he and Olmert have been secretly talking for years through Turkish mediation, that Olmert had, like former prime ministers Rabin, Netanyahu, Peres and Barak agreed to return the Golan in exchange for peace! In other words Olmert was turning away from the impossibility of progress towards agreement with a socially and politically fracture Palestine in favor of Syria as peace partner. But according to the Bush world-view Syria is a member of his “Axis of Evil.” And in Bush’s world the rule is you don’t negotiate with the “enemy,” unless you are President Bush and want to talk with arch-villain Iran about Iraq.

Is there a plausible connection between Bush going public with the reactor raid and Israel switching from Palestine to Syria? The Wilson-Plame affair describes and reinforces the image of Bush as vindictive when crossed. Is the resulting instability of the Israel government in the US interest? What was served by leaking Valerie Plame to the press? Obviously neither action serves a US interest. But we are not talking about a US national interest, but of a visceral reaction by an insecure if powerful person/administration intent on taking revenge.

Consider the possibilities: publicly embarrassing Assad again might stop those peace talks so onerous to Bush, but it might also increase pressure on Assad by his military to retaliate. A Syrian defeat could topple Assad in a coup, most likely at the hands of mid-level, pro-Iranian officers. That would draw Syria even tighter into the Iranian orbit. Alternatively, by weakening the central authority a sectarian civil war would likely bring a radical Islamic state to power, again bringing Iran more firmly into the Levant. Leaving implications for Israel, Lebanon and Jordan aside, were Syria to fall deeper into the Iranian orbit the US would find itself facing a much bolder Iranian threat resulting in a more unstable Middle East. Oil production would be under greater threat which would increase speculation in oil futures which, in turn, will result in ever higher oil prices, greater world-wide inflation, and much worse.

In the end the real question is not whether Bush likes Israel or is intent on harming the Jewish state, but whether or not the Bush presidency benefited or harmed Israel during his term in office. Whether a friend duped by Arabists in his administration or from further down in the US bureaucracy; or whether he is the petty and vengeful weakling described above needing to “get even,” the “three incidents,” and particularly the public disclosure of the September, 2007 raid, could have had but one outcome, to harm Israel. And Bush could not have failed to recognize this.

So, how explain the strong popularity of George W. Bush among Israelis, leaders and public? During his visit his words were supportive, expressed solidarity and comfort: Bush was reassuring. But leaders, like the rest of us, are judged not by word but by deed. And this president has obviously by his lack of strategic vision destabilized the Middle East and, since Israel resides in the neighborhood, undermined also the security of Israel. How destabilize the region? Bush made possible and promoted Iranian ambitions and regional threat by neutralizing that county’s only credible enemy, Iraq. Bush insisted on the Palestinian elections, overriding Abbas and Israeli concerns, which brought Hamas to power. Then, realizing his error, forgot his “democratizing ideals” and plotted the failed coup by Fateh which resulted in the Gaza secession under an even stronger Hamas. Bush encouraged the invasion of Lebanon, then forced Israel to withdraw when the war went to slowly (much the result of limitations placed on Israel by Bush).

So how explain the president’s popularity among Israelis? Perhaps Israel is just star-struck, beguiled by his friendly smile. Bush rhetoric makes Israelis feel, even in face of the above contradictory evidence, that he is a friend, that he has Israel’s back. We are a people emerging from two thousand years of persecution at the hands of our neighbors in the western Diaspora, a people alone and accustomed to rejection and threat. Perhaps even a false smile is reassuring, encourages hope.

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