US Affairs: Bush Doctrine revisited

Why did he choose to speak on the ME this week? Critics and fans say the answer, in a word, is - Iraq.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
On Wednesday, two days after US President George W. Bush gave a signature address on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the White House Jewish liaison took the unusual step of e-mailing journalists an oped about the speech. Jeremy Katz sent out the article, authored by historian Michael Oren of Jerusalem's Shalem Center and published in the Wall Street Journal, to his "Jewish Leaders" mailing list with the note that the piece was "worth taking the time to read." That's code for "presents and defends administration policy in a compelling way." So what was so worth reading? The oped, titled "The Bush Doctrine Lives," gently chides the Israeli media for focusing on the international conference Bush announced, which "misses the point." And the point, he explains, is that "Mr. Bush has not backtracked an inch from his revolutionary Middle East policy." In fact, for anyone thinking that there might be something new in Bush's speech, roughly timed for the five-year anniversary of his original speech on his vision for a two-state solution, the administration was at pains to make it clear there was not. Instead, Bush recycled his previous pronouncements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a bow to his weakened political position and the realities facing him in the region, particularly Iraq. On Tuesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams held a conference call with Jewish officials and reassured them that there was nothing in the speech that meant policy toward Israel would be changing or that Israel would find itself under extra pressure to make concessions. He also told them that the international conference - the very item seized on by the Israeli press as headline-making - wouldn't be a forum for final status discussions. And just in case the media harbored illusions about what Bush meant, White House spokesman Tony Snow clarified it in his follow-up press briefing. "I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It's not. This is a meeting to sit down and try to find ways of building fundamental and critical institutions for the Palestinians that are going to enable them to have self-government and democracy." The list of attendees is still unknown, but Bush said they would be countries neighboring Israel which "support a two-state solution, reject violence and recognize Israel's right to exist." "Getting Arab states to show up at a conference is not a new phenomenon," said Dan Kurtzer, who served as US ambassador to Israel under Bush and did praise the president for increasing his engagement on the issue. At the Madrid Conference convened in 1991 during the elder Bush's term, even the Syrians and Lebanese came. In the present case, it's not clear they would even be invited. Speaking of the speech generally, Kurtzer said he "didn't see anything different" from already stated policy and that "the president didn't offer anything bold. He didn't ask anybody to extend themselves beyond what they've committed." "It was really a return to the road map's approach to the peace process," said Tamara Wittes, a Middle East expert with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, referring to the document pushed by Bush in 2003 but fairly moribund ever since. The speech, as the first phase of the road map, stressed the need for Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure as a prerequisite for further action. She warned that such a posture could revive "a staring contest between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership where both sides claimed they couldn't move until the other side moved first." But Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN who was in Washington this week to speak at a Christians United For Israel conference, defended the message of the need for Palestinian reform. He added, though, that "It also seems that there has not been an effort to rethink the fundamentals of the peace process in light of the strategic changes among the Palestinians or the region as a whole." He was referring to developments in the last five years including the recent Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip and the rise of Iran. So why give a major speech if there's no new agenda? "If you launch an initiative, it's only natural to check back in on that initiative some time after that date," said American Jewish Committee Washington office Director Jason Isaacson, referring to Bush's speech in 2002, adding that there's "a sense that there needs to be further attention paid to this issue." Jess Hordes, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Washington branch, connected the delivery to the Gaza takeover and the pressure that puts on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas - as well as the way in which that's freed his administration in the West Bank from dealing with the Islamic militant group. "The time is partly related to the changes on the ground and the renewed sense of urgency," he said. "What you have is an [effort] to take advantage of riper conditions than they felt they had before." Another official with a national Jewish organization put it less charitably: "He was trying to do damage control - damage to his strategy done by Hamas taking over Gaza." But there's another looming factor, repeated again and again: Iraq. Kurtzer said the speech stemmed from both a desire to shore up two weak leaders - Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - and to build some international goodwill at a time of crisis in Iraq. "The unspoken issue here is the degree to which the president needs to show some diplomatic activity on this front because of the situation in Iraq," he said. "The president would like to show some movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front to show that he's in the game." Put more bluntly by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute: "I'm simply not convinced that this was something more than a subject change - from Iraq." He added, "I've played Charlie Brown football with them for too long and I just don't believe them." So, even if the idea is to rally Arab support, why not take advantage of a rare address to make a bold statement that might at least serve that end? The Jewish official who wished to remain anonymous said that would go against the grain of this administration. "If he does say something, it's a commitment that he then has to then pursue, and he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to take any risks in terms of how it might impact Iraq." At the very least, he added, "Israel would be extremely uncomfortable with it, and he doesn't want to muddy the waters at all." He chalked the concern up to "electoral backlash - he doesn't want to alienate the Jewish community or the evangelicals." The official also said he was afraid of repeating former president Bill Clinton's vehement efforts to forge a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace only to see his initiatives go up in flames, quite literally. "He said he didn't want to make the same mistakes that Clinton made," the official said of Bush. "He came into office determined to be the un-Clinton, the anti-Clinton. He decided he wasn't going to make the same mistakes." Yet the fear of Clinton's legacy shouldn't blind him to his own, Kurtzer said. "Whatever Clinton's legacy, they're going to leave their own legacy of inaction."