"A definition of a sustainable cease-fire is that Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel."
By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, THE JERUSALEM POST, WASHINGTON
In his final press conference before he leaves office next Tuesday, US President George W. Bush on Monday strongly backed Israel in its fight against Hamas and echoed none of the international community's criticism for the IDF's attack on Gaza.
"Israel has a right to defend herself," he said when asked if he approves of Israel's actions. "I'm for a sustainable cease-fire. And a definition of a sustainable cease-fire is that Hamas stops firing rockets into Israelâ€¦ The choice is Hamas's to make."
It was a characteristic display of support for America's closest Middle East ally, as Bush once again demonstrated the deference to Israel's judgment on what it needs to do to protect its security that has been a consistent policy during his time in office.
Yet his statements came soon after the US abstained rather than vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that Israel opposed, a move viewed with frustration and consternation in Jerusalem.
And just one day earlier, The New York Times reported that Bush had turned down Israeli requests for weapons and permission to fly over Iraq that would have enabled a strike on Iran.
Bush once talked tough on Iran, making headlines at earlier press conferences for his harsh words on Teheran's nuclear program, at one point warning that it risked sparking "World War III."
But at Monday's press conference, he barely mentioned Iran, even when asked pointedly about the "Axis of Evil" countries: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. He spoke at length about the last country, but said of Iran only that it was "still dangerous."
So for all of Bush's rhetorical support for the Jewish state, as the president at times called "Israel's best friend in the White House" prepares to leave office, some in Israel are wondering whether his support these last years has, indeed, just been rhetoric.
"It's clear that's what he believed," said David Wurmser, who advised Vice President Dick Cheney on Middle East policy before leaving the administration in 2007, defending Bush's feelings towards Israel as strong and genuine, stemming largely from a shared view of the region and the world. But he added, "It didn't matter because he wasn't willing or able to impose those sentiments on Washington."
Wurmser faulted Bush personnel decisions - particularly making Condoleezza Rice US secretary of state - and political calculations that elevated the role of bureaucrats opposed to Bush's more aggressive approach for stymieing policies Bush would have like to have seen implemented.
Wurmser included military action against Iran as one such possibility, adding that those in the administration who were opposed to such measures were able to use Bush's fears about losing in Iraq to cut off that option, as they argued that attacking Iran would make things worse in Baghdad.
"The president still sees Iraq as the core of his legacy [and] the foundation for anything else we want to achieve in the region," Wurmser said.
He also pointed to Israel itself as limiting Bush's options and making it harder for him to contemplate using force in Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East.
"Israel's failure to perform in the 2006 war had a profound effect on the ability of those in the US government who wanted to take more action," recalled Wurmser, as one who would have pursued such an option.
"It had a major impact on our credibility, and it's something from which we never recovered. It's one of the unknown casualties of the 2006 war, and Israel is being haunted by that now," he said. "This is constantly being invoked, whether it comes to Gaza now or Iran."
Wurmser added that some of Bush's moves are a sign of the transition taking place, as he prepares to hand over the reins to Obama. "It's a transition not only of presidents but also of policy," he said, suggesting Bush is making moves in line with what he anticipates Obama's policies to be.
Indeed, at Monday's press conference, Bush took the unusual step of referring an executive decision directly to the incoming leader. When asked if he would be asking Congress for an additional $350 billion as part of the financial bailout package, he replied, "I have talked to the president-elect about this subject, and I told him that if he felt that he needed the $350b., I would be willing to ask for it."
Though it was a matter of economic policy, and domestic issues are ones Obama has felt freer to speak out on during the transition period, it was a gesture in keeping with Bush's efforts to leave a lasting picture of a graceful handover after a tenure viewed by many Americans as divisive.
And Obama himself, when asked about whether he plans to build on Bush's Middle East policy or break with it, suggested that he would do the former despite having been critical of it during his campaign.
"I think that if you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach," he said Sunday.
But Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who has served on several administrations, said that he didn't see Bush modifying his policies recently or otherwise particularly attempting to facilitate the transition on Middle East issues, arguing that the Obama administration would have responded similarly to the situation in Gaza in any case.
He noted that there had been reports the US abstention on the Security Council resolution was a tactical move based on certain logistical constraints, and contended that the potential of an attack on Iran was an issue of such magnitude it had sobered Bush into making a good decision to exercise restraint.
What Miller found exceptional about the Times report, which was the lead story in the Sunday newspaper, was that such a big deal was made about a scenario in which the United States didn't follow Israel's wishes because it felt it wasn't in America's national interest to do so.
"The expectation and assumption that Israel should get everything [it wants on Iran] is a strong snapshot of how close the relationship is," he said.
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