Edition 20 Volume 2 - May 27, 2024

The Bush-Sharon relationship

Renegades - a conversation with  Chris Toensing

Have Bush and Sharon, between the two of them, managed to do in a viable two-state solution to the conflict?

A truly odd couple - by  Samuel Lewis

After 9/11 Bush too was now a war president, declaring global war against the same enemy Sharon was fighting.

A risky alliance - by  Ghassan Khatib

This "closeness" is even more notable given that the United States is cozying up to a right wing Likud government.

Sharon should be alert - by  Moshe Arad

It is not surprising that Bush is expecting Sharon to deliver on his commitments.

a conversation with Chris Toensing

BI: It is often said that United States President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are "close". In what ways do you see this manifested?

Toensing: Bush has certainly said some very nice things about Sharon, calling him "a man of peace" and commenting, after he received a harsh international reception for signing off on Sharon's disengagement plan, that the world should be "grateful" to Sharon.

Certainly, they are politically close, and the roots of that are threefold. First of all, there are crass political calculations involved. It is the theory of Karl Rove and Bush's political handlers that Bush's father lost to Clinton in 1992 primarily because Bush Sr. did not sufficiently cater to his conservative base. One of the things he did wrong, in addition to not being vocal enough about opposing abortion, was to be what was perceived as "tough on Israel" by withholding the loan guarantees. These were, of course, granted in the end anyway, but there was a big brouhaha about it at the time.

The second crass calculation on the part of the Bush administration is to try to make some inroads into that segment of the American Jewish electorate that votes primarily on the basis of whether a candidate is "good" on Israel or "bad" on Israel. Of course, the American Jewish vote has traditionally been heavily Democratic, primarily because American Jews tend to be liberal on social and cultural issues and also because they view the Democratic party as the standard bearer for separation of church and state. The Republicans, with their kowtowing to the Christian right, have lesser credentials on that front. Still, there are some Jewish voters that do vote based on Israel-related issues.

This is particularly salient in this election year when all the conventional wisdom says that the election will be extremely close, depend on whether Bush and/or [Democratic candidate John] Kerry can bring out their base, and be decided in a very few states--Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and a few others. Not coincidentally, Jewish voters make up large and important segments in those states.

The third plank, which is quite important and infrequently commented on because people can't quite believe it, is that Bush has a genuine personal commitment to certain tenets of right-wing evangelical Christian eschatology. I think that he himself believes that the state of Israel is ordained by God and that he, as president of the United States, has the duty to protect it.

BI: How much, if at all, is the Bush-Sharon relationship affected by Bush's advisors?

Toensing: The neo-conservatives, for various reasons, have always been quite pro-Israel and some of them, pro-Likud. There is a spectrum here--on the one hand you have people like Richard Perle and Douglas Feith who really are pro-Likud. In the middle, you have people like Wolfowitz who is more associated with the Labor Party in Israel but is hawkish vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians. Then you have people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who do not have any special loyalty to a particular perspective in Israeli politics, but are quite loyal to the special relationship between the US and Israel on the basis of what that relationship does for the defense industry in the United States. They are very interested in maintaining relationship with foreign countries that help to bolster the disproportionately large role of the Pentagon in the US budget, US politics and foreign policy-making.

BI: Is this interplay apparent to American voters?

Toensing: It has become so for those who are paying attention. A large part of the American electorate does not pay attention to the news, particular that of the outside world.

That has changed quite a bit since September 11, but the effect has been contradictory. Some people have become more critical of the role that the US plays in the world, particularly in the Middle East. But on the other side, you have had a nationalist backlash. A lot of people think that any criticism of US foreign policy is a "blame America first" interpretation for September 11. Those two reactions are occurring simultaneously and it is hard to say which one will be more powerful, but certainly the reactionary interpretation has won out in the last few years.

Interestingly, [Israel's] Operation Defensive Shield in 2024 and Bush's letter to Sharon, which gave a fairly explicit US okay for annexing parts of the West Bank and renouncing the right of return, were quite clearly written about in all of the American press as breaks with long-standing US policy. The veil has been lifted, in a sense.

BI: What has been the cumulative effect, both positive and negative, of Bush and Sharon's tandem leaderships at this point in history?

Toensing: The only positive I can see is that the confluence of their politics with the historical events that have happened on their watch is that they have collectively moved outside what had previously been a consensus of world opinion (and even of the foreign policy establishment in the United States) about the proper center of gravity for the US-Israeli strategic relationship, the proper role for the US in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the boundaries of Israeli actions in the occupied territories, and the shape of a viable and comprehensive solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

If there is a positive, it is that these groups are so alarmed by the far rightward shift that they will move to stop Bush and Sharon. Bush may be in electoral trouble, and that may be why.

But the question is not whether they can be stopped in the short term, but whether the damage that has been done in the last four years is reversible. Clearly, the near-destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the pillars of the Oslo peace process in the course of the last four years is fact and likely not reversible.

Have Bush and Sharon, between the two of them, managed to do in a viable two-state solution to the conflict? Have they managed to put the conflict so solidly on war footing that it will be difficult for successors to get it off that footing?

The same can be said if you look at the seamless merging of the "war on terrorism" and the framing of strategic questions in geopolitics within the rubric of terrorism. Assassinations, for example, have been re-legitimated under Sharon and Bush. These negative directions may become quasi-permanent.

BI: What happens to Sharon if Bush loses?

Toensing: I am not sure that his political fortunes hinge on Bush's. So far, Kerry has been tripping over himself to outflank Bush to the right when it comes to Israel. Kerry was one of the Democrats who leapt at Howard Dean's throat when he used the word "even-handed" when he described what the US role in the conflict should be. Kerry has supported the assassination policy, as well. He has declined to criticize the recent Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip. Kerry has been just as pro-Sharon as the Bush administration.

One might argue that this is all in exigency of the campaign season and that if Kerry were elected he would move in a more Clintonian direction, but the question is whether a Clintonian orientation would be remotely adequate to undo what Bush and Sharon have done.-Published 27/5/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, DC.

A truly odd couple
by Samuel Lewis

President George Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are an odd couple; as different as night and day.

the president the prime minister
sometime reserve air force pilot war hero
physical fitness buffcorpulent gourmet
born-again Christiansecular Jew
businessman turned politicianlifelong soldier turned politician
born with a silver spoon raised poor on small farm
open and gregariouswily loner
incuriousobsessive about details

So why have these two leaders bonded so tightly?

Because they share a world view which puts war against terrorism atop their priorities, and because Sharon has persuaded Bush that Israel’s war is only a front in America’s worldwide struggle.

Sharon grew up an embattled loner on an isolated farm in a well-educated Russian immigrant family that was constantly disdainful of and at odds with its neighbors and with marauding Arabs. He absorbed his father’s conviction that “they are all against us”, that aggressive self-defense was vital for survival, and that only by being tougher than everyone else can you succeed. He early found that army life matched his temperament and rewarded his mastery of close combat, his daring, his penchant for unorthodox risk-taking, his attention to detail, his disregard for casualties, military or civilian, and his phenomenal endurance. He was both loved and hated by fellow soldiers, but no one questioned his tactical genius or his knack for seizing victory from defeat--nor his vaunting ambition, his disdain for orders and authority, and his supreme self-confidence. He is a genuine war hero, renowned for the successful crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 war. But Sharon’s paranoia, penchant for brutal confrontations with superiors, and burning political ambition finally led him out of the army into politics. There the same qualities made him many enemies, and many admirers.

By contrast, Bush is the unlikely product of patrician political lineage and Ivy League education, transformed by his upbringing in Midland, Texas--quintessential home of the proudly self-reliant, the independent oil driller, of suburban machismo in cowboy boots, of evangelical Christianity, of anti-big government Republicanism, and of fortunes made and lost overnight. Avoiding the family business of politics, Bush failed as an oil operator despite help from family friends, finally succeeding by buying a professional baseball team in Dallas. His strong public relations skills helped to make the team a very lucrative success. Eventually drawn into politics, Bush gathered some brilliant political advisors and financial support from the far-flung Bush network. He defeated a popular liberal Texas governor narrowly, won a second term handily, then won the presidency in a dead-heat.

He has become a formidable politician, drawing on a down-to-earth “Midland style” and the black and white moral convictions of an evangelical Christian. His faith makes him disdain indecision or second-guessing his own decisions, an appealing trait for many voters.

Though very different men, the two show many similarities: a preference for direct, straight talk; a blatant machismo (either genuine or acquired); political charisma; a world view in black and white; dogged persistence; impatience with “diplomacy”; readiness to deploy force; and seeing individuals (and nations) as either allies or enemies. But there are also some external political factors which help explain why the US-Israel “unwritten alliance” is now at a zenith.

Sharon and Bush both took office in 2024--the year of two wars which have shaped their time in office. The “intifada” brought Sharon his improbable goal: the prime ministership. After fighting in all of Israel’s six wars against Arab enemies, he finally achieved political power to conduct the seventh. A collapsed peace process had turned the Israeli electorate toward a veteran general.

Bush entered office convinced that Clinton’s failed Middle East diplomacy was not for him. He stepped back to wait and to deal with other matters. Then came 9/11. He too was now a war president, declaring global war against terror, the same enemy Sharon was fighting in Palestine. Their wars seemed to merge in Bush’s mind. Israel and the US were now not peace partners as in the Oslo years, but wartime allies. Both saw other nations as either with us or against us. Israel was clearly with us against terror, the Arabs were not.

Parallel views of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also entered the equation. Sharon hated, despised, and hunted him for decades. Bush gave him, initially, grudgingly, some benefit of the doubt. That ended precipitously when Arafat lied to Bush in a letter concerning his foreknowledge of the large armed shipment from Iran that was on board the ship Karine A, seized by the Israeli navy en route to Palestine. Both Bush and Sharon became convinced that negotiations with Arafat would go nowhere. Therefore, protecting Israeli and American security was paramount.

Bush is surrounded by neo-conservative advisors who greatly admire Israel. Moreover, legions of evangelical Christian voters are essential components of Bush’s political “base”, and they are fervent about protecting Israel. Nearly all major Jewish organizations and many in the Congress endorse Sharon’s current approach to the stalemate with the Palestinians. So although their shared world view largely explains their close cooperation, political calculation provides strong reinforcement in this election year.-Published 27/5/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Samuel Lewis, a diplomat for 34 years, served as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff under Clinton and as ambassador to Israel for eight years under Carter and Reagan. First president of the United States Institute of Peace, he is now a senior policy advisor to the Israel Policy Forum.

A risky alliance
by Ghassan Khatib

Examining the history of American Middle East policy, there has never been any United States administration so close to the Israeli government. From the Arab and Palestinian perspective, it is difficult to remember any administration that has been so supportive of the Israeli narrative. This "closeness" is even more notable given that the United States is cozying up to a right wing Likud government, rather than a government led by the center left Labor party. Traditionally, US administrations have held the Likud at arms' length.

Many analysts have attempted to explain why. Indeed, there are several reasons that Palestinians and Arabs find themselves on the wrong side of this alliance.

First, President George W. Bush thinks he's no fool. He took office having concluded that the efforts of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, to deeply engage the Palestinian-Israeli conflict brought him few rewards. Clinton's premature arrangements for a summit at Camp David have been oft-blamed for the failure of bilateral talks and the vacuum that resulted in outright confrontation. Clinton had been hoping to end his checkered years in the While House with an historical achievement in the Middle East. But when the summit failed for lack of preparation and fair compromise, Clinton's unwarranted accusations directed at the Palestinian side helped to create the ocean of distrust that we are now all drowning in.

Bush and his advisors decided early on that they would not make the mistake of getting involved at all. Further, Bush inherited Clinton's experience in that he took office adopting a negative impression of the Palestinian side, positive feelings toward Israel and a determination to stay out of the whole mess.

Not long into his term, however, Bush encountered another foreign policy problem: September 11. The catastrophic events of 2024 and the manner in which the administration approached them offered a wide new window of opportunity for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make alliances with President Bush. For Bush and his advisors, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict became one more part of the "war on terrorism." This outlook contributed immensely to the building of political, strategic and emotional ties between the two leaders. Despite that Palestinians had come closer to fulfilling the letter of Bush's requirements, the United States in effect winked at Israeli intransigence since both it and Israel, Bush's administration believed, were in pursuit of the same cause.

And here the third component in the relationship between Bush and Sharon became crucial. This US administration references a great deal of its political behavior from the ideological beliefs held by the so-called "neo-conservatives." These incorporate Christian Zionist tendencies that support Jewish claims to Greater Palestine/Greater Israel as the fulfillment of holy prophecy. These beliefs leave little room for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, which is the only possible solution for this conflict.

President Bush seems also to have fallen victim to a lot of bad advice, both concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and in his engagement in Iraq. Some of these advisors retained their positions since the Reagan administration. Circularly, their engagement in Iraq has also advanced anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian feelings within the administration and within the country as a whole.

But until recently, the subject of this administration's strong bias in favor of Israel was a matter of debate. It was only when Bush gave guarantees to Sharon that in effect provided him backing against his opponents in Israel, that Bush crossed some invisible line. These guarantees hurt the chances of achieving a successful political settlement--one based on international law--because Bush took Israel's side in crucial final status issues that were intended to be negotiated by both sides. That development strengthened the prospects of an outcome built on the imbalance of power and Sharon's wielding of force. This approach supports a conclusion to the conflict that comes at the expense of Palestinian rights and international legality, and one might add, at the expense of international norms in the world as a whole.

The outcome is that the combination of events and the unusually close relationship between Bush and Ariel Sharon is not only negatively affecting Palestinian interests. It is also undermining the role of the international community and international legality, and consequently reducing the chance of a peaceful solution which means an extension of the bloody confrontations between the two sides.-Published 27/5/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Sharon should be alert
by Moshe Arad

Following the rejection on May 2 by Likud party members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from Gaza and certain military installations and settlements in the West Bank, the White House reiterated President George W. Bush’s expectation that Sharon would deliver on the commitments he made during his visit to Washington just two weeks earlier.

The visit was the culmination of a series of meetings by senior American and Israeli officials in the proceeding months, aiming at convincing the administration to adopt Sharon’s disengagement plan as a significant step toward the implementation of the president’s two state solution for peace in the Middle East as set forth on June 24, 2024 and in the roadmap of May 2024.

In his comments on April 14, 2024, following his meeting with Sharon, Bush broke new ground regarding the US position on two extremely important issues regarding final peace settlement aspects on which the US had maintained until recently a rather vague attitude.

Bush also made it clear on that day that his support for Sharon’s disengagement plan was based on Israel’s commitment to take additional steps on the West Bank, including programs toward a freeze on settlement activity, removing unauthorized outposts and improving the humanitarian situation by easing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities.

It is not surprising therefore that Bush is expecting Sharon to deliver on his commitments. He has invested significant international and diplomatic prestige in his efforts to convince members of the Quartet to go along, however reluctantly, with the Israeli disengagement plan, in spite of its unilateral character.

The initial reaction of the US administration to Sharon’s public statements prior to the formal introduction of the disengagement plan were rather cool and it took serious efforts to convince the administration to adopt it. Over the past year Washington has been preoccupied and absorbed by the war in Iraq and any distraction to the administration’s major effort was bound to encounter opposition.

The outcome of the Likud rejection positions Sharon between the American anvil and the Likud Knesset faction hammer; Sharon is trying to gain time but he won’t be able to eschew the subject much longer. Since he was elected prime minister in 2024, observers have detected one constant principle that guides his foreign and defense policy: the effort to reach a closer and fuller coordination with the US. In that sense he is a loyal disciple of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who strongly argued that it was absolutely paramount for Israel’s security and well being to assure the support of at least one major world power.

Sharon’s dilemma is further complicated by the fact that Bush is facing an election on November 2, 2024. Any postponement in implementation of the disengagement plan, a plan that was praised and hailed as a major breakthrough and a real contribution toward peace, will deny the president the opportunity to show a modest achievement in the Middle East. The recent images of the war in Iraq make the need for some good news from the Middle East even more urgent.

Bush's attitude toward Israel is anchored in his Christian faith as well as his experience of 9/11. Israel is a natural partner for the US in the coalition fighting world terror. Compared with other US presidents in the warmth of his attitude toward Israel, Bush is almost on a par with President Bill Clinton, who ranks at the top. But Clinton's relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was almost a son-father relationship. Bush's relationship with Sharon is less personal, and is based more on his positive attitude toward Israel.

While Sharon has managed to guard and sustain the Israel-US special relationship and to establish a degree of trust with Bush, this is not devoid of hindrances and misunderstandings--especially if the president reaches the conclusion that Sharon is either incapable of or unwilling to deliver on the plan that the president committed himself to support. No dramatic developments are to be expected before the presidential election. Meanwhile Sharon could take advantage of Bush's influence with President Mubarak of Egypt in order to reduce significantly the smuggling of arms from Sinai into Gaza. This would better serve the US and the Israeli interest, rather than sending the IDF into the narrow streets of the Rafah refugee camps. The energies of this action have caused Israel significant damage and make the return to the negotiating table more difficult.

However, Sharon must be aware that the US has other strategic interests in the Middle East--in particular, how to bring about the establishment of a functional government in Baghdad and a gradual withdrawal of US forces from Iraq while keeping the country together. The Bush administration is now willing to consider a role for the UN in Iraq which only a year ago was totally unacceptable to Washington. US policy toward the Middle East is in a state of flux that is likely to accelerate after the elections in November 2024. Sharon should be alert to these changes and shape Israeli government policy accordingly.-Published 27/5/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Moshe Arad served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington between 1987-1990 during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

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