On his way to Israel

As much as Israelis are always happy to see a US president, it's only in the context of pushing for renewed sanctions that Bush's visit would make policy sense.

Bush 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bush 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter may have been speaking out of school when he warned that the US might be headed for a "regional Yom Kippur" with an intelligence report that puts America in a state of denial regarding Iran. But he was saying something that not only Israelis, but leaders throughout the region are no doubt thinking. In case anyone missed the reference, Dichter was clearly alluding to the mistaken "conceptzia" that led to Israel being surprised by the 1973 Yom Kippur War. At that time, just six years after the astounding victory in the Six Day War, Israel's leadership was convinced that the Arab states would not attack, and therefore ignored all evidence to the contrary. The source of the mistaken US "conceptzia" is very different: the desire of the American national security apparatus to remove a sense of urgency from the Iran problem in order to prevent, and avoid being implicated in, a build-up toward military action like that which preceded the Iraq war. However different the problem's source may be, Dichter has accurately diagnosed its implications. Entering a state of denial does not make a threat go away, and actually makes eventual war more likely. President George W. Bush and his top officials have been trying to repair the damage caused by the National Intelligence Estimate by insisting that the sanctions campaign against Iran is more relevant than ever. France and Britain, which before the release of the US report were pressing hard for tougher sanctions, are claiming that nothing has changed. But a watching world expects that, having been robbed of its sense of urgency, the sanctions campaign will collapse. It is in this context that Bush is scheduled to make his first trip to Israel next month, partly to push the diplomatic process formally relaunched in Annapolis and partly to counter the impression that America has abandoned Israel to its own devices in the face of the Iranian threat. Israel, of course, will welcome the visit of a president seen to be among the best friends the Jewish state has ever known. In Israel, Bush's war against Islamofascism, which he has had trouble explaining to Americans, needs no elaboration. Yet however well-received Bush's visit will be, it will have largely missed the point if it is made in isolation, without salvaging US policy toward Iran. Even in Israel, the visit could serve to accentuate a failure to face an impending danger that threatens the entire West, but most particularly, the Jewish state. No Bush speech in Jerusalem, however ringing, will be sufficient to counteract a reality in which the road to an Iranian bomb seems more unobstructed than ever. This policy and perceptual setback can still be avoided. On his way to this region, Bush could stop in London, Paris, and Berlin for a single purpose: to make a concerted push for serious EU sanctions against Iran. This is the least Bush can do for Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, who it can be assumed feel like they have been left high and dry by the new US "What, me worry?" report. And if London and Paris need reinforcement, then Berlin requires even more attention, since Germany has been the least supportive within the EU-3 of tough European-wide or bilateral sanctions on Teheran. These stopovers are not only necessary to change the dynamic of Bush's visit to Israel, but to bolster the Annapolis process as well. As former national security council chief Ilan Mizrahi told The Jerusalem Post on Friday, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is secondary to the ... central struggle between radicals and pragmatists in the Middle East. That struggle impacts on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and not the opposite." Bush, in other words, can forget about the Annapolis process getting anywhere if the US is perceived to be easing the pressure on the Iran. That perception can only be reversed by concrete American actions. Trying to bolster Annapolis without reviving the sanctions campaign could actually deepen the regional concern that America is confused between the central and peripheral, between cause and effect. A high-profile, top-level US push for European sanctions on Iran could correct these impressions, demonstrate that an Iranian bomb is not inevitable, and help convince the Arab world not to run away from the American "weak horse" and towards accommodation with Iran. As much as Israelis are always happy to see an American president, it is only in the context of a renewed sanctions push that Bush's visit would make policy sense.