Rattling the Cage: Bush and his good intentions

Until Bush got in, the US always tried to draw Israel and its enemies together, not keep them apart.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
If a war breaks out between Israel and Syria and a Winograd-style committee is appointed afterward to investigate it, one of the questions guaranteed to come up is this: Why did Prime Minister Ehud Olmert turn down Syrian President Bashar Assad's repeated, high-profile offers to talk peace? The answer can already be written: Because that's what US President George W. Bush wanted Olmert to do. The prime minister hasn't even tried to hide this. "We must not respond to the Syrian initiative while President Bush, Israel's most important ally, opposes all negotiations with Syria," he has said. Two-thirds of Israelis want Olmert to negotiate with Assad, according to Mina Tzemach, Israel's leading pollster. My strong guess is that if Israel weren't utterly beholden to the White House, Olmert would take Assad up on his offer. After all, prime ministers Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak all negotiated indirectly with Hafez Assad. They all offered him the Golan Heights for peace, too. The talks failed every time, it's true, but nothing was lost by trying. Israel ordinarily believes in trying - in talking peace with the enemy to avert war, so long as the enemy is ready to recognize Israel, a readiness Hafez Assad showed in the last decade of his life by talking to Israel through a series of American interlocutors. Maybe Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent informal meeting in Egypt with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem will lead the way to Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Or maybe it won't. Meantime, one thing is sure: In the absence of peace talks, Israel and Syria are both preparing militarily for the possibility of war. I DON'T know about you, but if Israel ends up going to war with Syria, I'm going to be very, very mad at George W. Bush. I'm going to blame him for the deaths that might have been prevented. I'll blame Olmert for not standing up to Bush, but without doubt, as things stand today, the obstacle to peace talks that could prevent a potential war between Syria and Israel is the president of the United States. This must be unprecedented. I don't know of any other instance in history where an Arab country asked for negotiations with Israel, and the US vetoed it. Until Bush got in, the White House was always trying to draw Israel and its enemies together, not keep them apart. But the current US president doesn't believe in negotiating with states that harbor terrorists, which Syria does, so unless the Rice-Mualem meeting bears lots and lots of fruit, the Bush veto stands. It's a stupid, reckless policy, and a lot of Israelis may end up dying over it. The ironic thing is that the man who would be ultimately responsible for those deaths is, in some ways, truly the best friend in the White House that Israel has ever had. I WANT to give Bush his due. There may have been other presidents who cared as deeply about Israel as he does - I'd put Bill Clinton, at least, in that category - but I don't think any president ever took sides with Israel against the rest of the world like Bush has done. When Israel was fighting the intifada at its peak - assassinating terrorist leaders, building the security barrier, imprisoning Yasser Arafat - the only real ally it had was Bush, and he turned out to be enough. Ariel Sharon's handling of the intifada was one case in which a harsh Israeli military policy was necessary and ultimately successful; without Bush's support in those years, we might still have Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up in Israeli cities. For that alone, Israel will always be indebted to George W. Bush. But I'm afraid the intifada was the exception to the rule in his relations with Israel; in every other important conflict, Bush's fighting spirit, his identification with Israel as the beleaguered, hated, righteous warrior - his thoroughly good intentions for this country - have done Israel a world of harm. WE CAN start with the war in Iraq. Bush didn't go to war there for Israel's sake, but clearly he saw the benefit to Israel from the removal of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a pro-American Iraqi government as at least a "collateral benefit" of the war, a secondary reason for fighting it. And nearly all Israelis loved the idea. Bush wants to get rid of Saddam? Thank you, Mr. President! But look what's happening. This stupid, reckless war has set America up for a resounding fall at the hands of enemies who hate Israel at least as much as they do America. At some point, whenever the US finally leaves Iraq, Israel's great ally is going to be humbled and weakened, while Israel's great enemies will be triumphant. It's only a question of when. And at that point, the realization will creep in that Bush's war in Iraq, even though it got rid of Saddam, was, on balance, unwittingly bad for the Jews. So was Bush's lonely, loyal support for Israel's quest for "victory" in Lebanon last summer. Any past US president probably would have gone along with the Western consensus and ordered Israel to cool it after the first few days of bombing Hizbullah. And even though Israel would have protested, such a president would have been doing Israel a favor. But Bush, being made of sterner stuff, gave Israel the political shield necessary to fight on. This resulted in scores of Israelis and hundreds of Lebanese civilians dying for nothing, while it frittered away Israel's early international support and allowed Hizbullah to crawl out of the Arab world's doghouse. But Bush provided Israel with more than just diplomatic support in the Second Lebanon War; he also provided inspiration. His messianic, apocalyptic, would-be Churchillian view of the world was adopted by almost the whole country, from Olmert on down. This wasn't just a limited battle with Hizbullah, Israelis convinced themselves, this was a war for Israel's survival, for the survival of the free world, a war against Iran and al-Qaida and all the Islamo-fascists, a war whose importance was no less than that of World War II, a war against the Nazis of today. Thus, "victory" was the only option. ON BUSH'S ideological model, and with Bush's crucial diplomatic assistance, the Second Lebanon War became a small-scale Israeli version of America's war in Iraq, even if the results weren't nearly as dreadful. Still, the results were much more dreadful, or rather much less successful, than they would have been without Bush's so-called help. He was an enabler when what Israel needed was a president who would set limits. A traditional sort of president who would save Israel from its worst self. And I only hope that this mutual reinforcement number that Bush and Israel have been playing stops short of a US attack on Iran. A lot of Israelis, maybe most, want Bush to do the job, and I imagine Bush is once again calculating the collateral benefit to Israel. As always, he has our best interests at heart. And if he bombs Iran's nuclear facilities, there will be Iranian missiles armed with poison gas and possibly bubonic plague falling on this country. Thank you, Mr. President, but no thank you. God bless you for your good intentions, but they're starting to pave the road to a place Israel would do well to avoid.