The Human Spirit: Reading America right

The president's call to end "the occupation" was anything but casual.

olmert bush 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert bush 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
We Israelis who speak Hebrew with American accents are experts on the ambivalence of native-born Israelis toward America and Americans. Veteran immigrants may still recall the persistent and puzzling questioning about muggers and murderers lurking on every American street corner. "Right, you were frightened to go out at night in America? Right, you feel safer now that you're in Israel?" I grew up in a rural Connecticut town where everyone left their car keys in the ignition. The greatest danger in going out at night was slipping on the winter ice. The mistaken assumptions about deficient personal security reflected a belief that there had to be a better reason than Zionism for someone to abandon friends, family and the good life in the prosperous USA. Although Israelis understand that America is a thriving country, they don't always make the connection that the Americans they meet had some part in this success. Your sabra offspring may suggest that you leave the wedding-hall negotiations to the other side lest your American accent be detected. Yet - let's admit it - many of us have learned to use this stereotyping to our advantage. We know how easy it is to misinterpret the gregariousness of Americans for an inherent gullibility. Just look at the news coverage of the recent visit of President George W. Bush. It focused as much on the security and traffic jams, the spectacular logistics, as on the content of the meetings. Everything was just dandy, according to the Foreign Ministry statements. The body language - hands on shoulders, the exchange of sports equipment, the mutual compliments made us feel good. At the Jerusalem Pool this week, a poolside philosopher came swimming energetically toward me, the American, to share her impressions of the Bush visit. "What do you think? Best entertainment we've had for a long time." This veteran, astute Israeli actually used that word, and without sarcasm. What was her favorite part? "When President Bush showed what good friends he is with Prime Minister Olmert. It's such a surprise that he likes Israel so much. Even if it was all an act, I loved it." I wish I could share her ebullience. I'm uneasy over this unexpected visit by the American president so close to the end of his second term. This trip was more than a booster shot for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a Bible tour and a photo-op, as Hamas described it. President Bush came with an agenda. He knew his talk of a peace treaty within a year would sound both naive and tantalizing. Our own prime minister has appealed to our pragmatic sides with the cogent argument that we have an unusual opportunity with such a sympathetic American administration and a relatively moderate negotiating partner. George W. Bush was an unfailing support through the awful days of exploding buses of the second intifada. However, in one of the most unpredictable presidential races ever, we can't guess how the 44th president of the United States will feel about Israel's place in the Middle East. THE CURRENT twice-elected president's prophecy of a peace treaty is more than a wish: It's a goal. Americans have their own preconceptions about Israelis, not all positive despite our ingenuity, hospitality and charisma. We now have our most powerful and supportive ally joining those pressuring Israel for concessions. That's not necessarily bad, but we should be careful about making rash promises we can't keep. Removing even a few isolated, unpopular outposts has proven thorny work for the IDF. How much military force would be needed to enforce an eviction order in Judean and Samarian cities? I can't imagine dismantling villages and towns without a buy-in by the majority of Israelis. Such a consensus isn't there. According to a Yediot Aharonot survey, only 18 percent of Israelis thought the November kickoff of this round of negotiations in Annapolis was a success. Much of this skepticism has to do with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Not that he wouldn't be a worthier negotiating partner than the late Yasser Arafat, but can we imagine that he speaks for the Palestinian people? The problem is that his party was defeated both at the polling stations and in street fighting in Gaza where most Palestinians live. The alleged "removal" of Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister of the PA has little meaning. Nor is there any proof that despite their considerable hardships, Gaza voters have rejected the Hamas leadership they so enthusiastically brought into office two years ago.   Kassam rockets keep falling. So, yes, we have someone with whom to negotiate, but whom does he represent? Largely brushed aside was the president's call to end "the occupation" that began in 1967. Although many Israelis frequently use that term, this word choice by an American president instead of say "disputed territories" was anything but casual. "Occupation," ambassador Dore Gold, now president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (and my fellow immigrant from Connecticut), has often pointed out, is an accusation. The term invokes memories of Nazi-occupied Europe, creates a political context to justify Palestinian violence and delegitimizes the Jewish historical attachment to the land. This not-so-subtle hardening of American policy is a call for greater flexibility from Israel. We're in a tighter spot than we were before the visit. Prime Minister Olmert presented President Bush with a GPS system for his bicycle handlebars. But let us not be under the false impression that the smiling, folksy president is going to use it pedaling backward.