Analysis: If only Israel's leaders would speak as Bush did

When you're knee-deep in day-to-day there's a need for an outsider.

bush knesset 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
bush knesset 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
The cynics among us will say that words don't mean much, that talk is cheap, and that the lofty rhetoric US President George W. Bush employed on our behalf in the Knesset Thursday will be forgotten tomorrow. But the cynics will be wrong. Sometimes, when you're knee-deep in the day-to-day, when you're just struggling to get by, when you're facing forces that seem so much bigger than you, there is a need for someone from the outside - someone bigger and more powerful - to come by, pat you on the back, tell you that you are not alone, and remind you both of your inherent worth and that it is all inherently worth it. That is what the Bush did Thursday in the Knesset. Centuries of suffering and sacrifice were to pass before the dream of a Jewish state was fulfilled, Bush reminded us. "The Jewish people endured the agony of the pogroms, the tragedy of the Great War, and the horror of the Holocaust - what Elie Wiesel called 'the kingdom of the night.' Soulless men took away lives and broke apart families. Yet they could not take away the spirit of the Jewish people, and they could not break the promise of God." Were that Israel's own leaders would speak in similar terms; were that Israel would believe as much in itself. "Yet in spite of the violence, in defiance of the threats, Israel has built a thriving democracy in the heart of the Holy Land," the US president said, reminding us of our not insignificant accomplishments. "You have welcomed immigrants from the four corners of the Earth. You have forged a free and modern society based on a love of liberty, a passion for justice, and a respect for human dignity. You have worked tirelessly for peace. And you have fought valiantly for freedom." We know all that, and over the last few weeks our own leaders - from President Shimon Peres to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi - have taken the opportunity of the 60th anniversary to remind us. But, oddly, it somehow sounds more honest when it comes from an outsider, more genuine from somebody who doesn't have to say it. When, during our current bout of self-doubt and fear, was the last time an Israeli leader stood up and with a conviction that made you believe he meant it, not that he was just mouthing tired phrases, said - as Bush did Thursday - "Masada shall never fall again." And then, even more importantly, Bush added, "Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will always stand with you." Words? Maybe. But they are important words, because if ever this country is again to take another calculated risk for peace, it will have to know that the US stands completely behind it. Words? Maybe. But if ever the Arab world will ever come around to accepting Israel's existence, it will have to know that it cannot drive a wedge between Jerusalem and Washington. The speech, at parts elegantly phrased, also echoed sentiments many of us feel, but rarely hear aired outside the shtetl. Bush said not to be swayed by popularity polls or the capricious opinion of "international elites." He said that we deserve a normal life just like everyone else in the world; that the UN has treated us shabbily; that those who openly ask whether Israel has a right to exist are anti-Semites, and that those who excuse this sentiment are little better. He said we have the right to protect ourselves and - of course - that we don't have to negotiate with those who want to destroy us. He took on, without mentioning them by name, the Jimmy Carters and Walts and Mearscheimers of the world who say that if the US would just break with Israel, all its Middle East problems would vanish. "This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of our enemies, and America rejects it utterly," Bush said, setting up what at first sounded somewhat corny, but on second blush was the most back-stiffening line of the speech. "Israel's population may be just over seven million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you." By referring to an unnamed senator silly enough in 1939 to have thought he could have talked Hitler out of invading Poland and starting World War II, Bush also flicked a stinging jab at Democratic presidential hopeful Barrack Obama, who wants to talk to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "We have an obligation to call this what it is: the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history," Bush said. Many of us know all that intuitively, and indeed talk about it weekly around the Shabbat table. But it's one thing for us to say it, and another for it to be uttered by the world's most powerful individual, especially when he didn't have to say it. Remember, Bush didn't have to utter these thoughts: his political career is over, he no longer needs the Jewish vote or campaign support - further proof he actually meant what he said.