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by Professor Paul C. Merkley


Anyone who has ever published a book about Israel's recent history soon learns that he has done a foolhardy thing, for Israel lives history at a faster pace than operates elsewhere in the world.

Last Spring (2004), I put my last changes into the page-proofs of my book American Presidents, Religion and Israel (Praeger, 2004) and the book went to press in August, 2004. The narrative section ends with President George W. Bush standing firm in support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the latter pursues a policy of refusing diplomacy with Yassir Arafat (alas, then still whinnying with us), who is continuing his habitual tactic of stirring up unremitting violence against the citizens of Israel while posing as a prince of peace. This shared posture of Bush and Sharon puts the President and the Prime Minister at odds with the UN, the EU, Canada (of course) and most of the chattering class everywhere in the free world -- all of whom are demanding concessions from Israel in order to raise the esteem of the Palestinian leaders and to instill hope in the Palestinian people.

August, 2005, will be remembered as the moment when the same P.M. of Israel unilaterally dismantled Jewish settlements in Gaza and Northern Samaria, casting off before the whole world his former logic, so passionately and so relentlessly defended, that the settlements of Jewish people in what had once been Eretz Israel were for ever and that unilateral retreats would reward terrorists and confirm the Palestine Authority in its conviction that no one seriously expects them to be responsible for the behaviour of the people they claim to govern. As Sharon threw the keys to Gaza and Northern Samaria to the hordes of terrorists, President Bush agreed that all was unfolding as it should -- and then walked away from questioners who asked how re-establishing al-Qaeda next door to Israel fitted the grand strategy announced in the wake of September 11, 2001.

Scholars will have to sort this all out eventually, but for the moment, and from the perspective of the interpretation which I followed in my book, one major theme is the evident eclipse (at last partial) of the influence of the White House intimates and also of the Defense Department, making possible the recapture by the State Department of the Middle East agenda. The champions of Conflict Resolution are back, and the "Vulcans," the champions of foreign policy realism, are off the scene -- either in lasting disarray, or, more likely, exhausted for the time being and trying to regroup.

As the Bush Presidency began, the professionals in the State Department, were, as always, keen to start up the Peace Process again. President Bush, however, was much less keen: he was determined to learn from the bitter experience of Bill Clinton, who had championed the Oslo Process and worked vigorously to bring about the definitive end of the conflict. Clinton had embraced Arafat as a peer of the elected leader of democratic Israel, giving Arafat access to the White House and the dignities belonging to a visiting head of state. Indeed, Arafat's official visits to the White House outnumbered those of any real head of state during those eight years. Arafat rewarded Clinton by throwing in his face the terms worked out at Camp David (July 2000) and starting up a Second Intifada. As the last sands were running out, it dawned on Bill Clinton that Arafat had never cared at all for Clinton's reputation or his peace of mind. On January 17, 2001, Arafat placed a personal telephone call to Clinton, praising him fulsomely, as "a great man." Clinton replied: "The hell I am -- I'm a colossal failure, and you made me one."

In the early months of the Bush Presidency the Sharon Government was often scolded by the U.S Government for intemperate responses to escalating Palestinian violence, but it was noted that only rarely did the words of condemnation come directly out of the mouth of the President himself. Bush met frequently with Prime Minister Sharon in these months but never once with Arafat. Commentators speculated (correctly) that Bush despised Arafat. There was nothing that Bush could find to celebrate or even to identify with in a man whose life from his youth had been sleeplessly dedicated to violence. It puzzled him that his predecessor as President and now so many of his contemporaries among the European leaders seemed to trust this figure and even to romanticize his life.

In the weeks immediately following 9/11, when all attention was on Afghanistan and its neighbors, it was not immediately clear how policy towards Israel would be affected. Early indications were that the Americans were increasing pressure upon Israel for concessions to the other side. On September 26, 2001, Prime Minister Sharon responded publicly to the American call for a ceasefire with the Palestinians, and followed-up this gesture by sending Foreign Minister Peres to meet with Arafat in Gaza to discuss resumption of the security arrangements agreed to some months earlier (the Mitchell Plan and the Tenet Plan.) On October 2, 2001, President Bush took the step which his critics said was most needed to reassure the Arab side of his goodwill -- namely, a declaration of his personal support for a Palestinian State.

But, in the long run, 9/11 assisted Israel's cause. In simplest terms, it deepened the sense that most Americans had always had of a common cause with Israel. Now the scales departed from the eyes of most Americans: the U.S. and Israel faced the same enemy. Americans would soon be dealing with that enemy on a daily basis unless Americans now took the very sort of actions which Israel had always taken against its internal enemy abetted by its external enemy -- now disclosed as America's external enemy, worldwide radical Islam.

Early in the year 2002, an ever-escalating series of assaults began upon civilian life in Israel, reaching a peak with the Passover Eve atrocity in Netanya (March 27-28, 2002.) This provoked Israel's Operation Shield, committed to destroying the entire infrastructure of terror throughout the PA. Arafat's own governmental compound in Ramallah was put under siege, Arafat himself being confined to a few rooms in an undamaged wing. As the IDF took possession of the offices and facilities of the PA they came into possession of abundant documentation of Arafat's duplicity -- proof of his close dealings with all the terrorist cells and with their sponsors throughout the Arab world. All this was shared with Government of the United States.

Thus the pattern was set for the next year and more: there would be a suicide-bombing in Israel, followed by an IDF occupation of civilian areas within the PA and the closing of borders; this would usually effect a decline in terrorist actions, but never their elimination. Arafat would then make a statement deploring violence on all sides, which would then be held up by the U.K. or the EU as proof of Arafat's desire to establish a peaceful setting for further negotiations; Sharon would then agree to withdraw or curtail the occupying forces; then more suicide-bombers would slip through the borders in the midst of the thousands of workers, and the cycle would resume.

In a statement of June 24, 2002, President Bush confirmed his Government's commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state but affirmed something new as well: that no steps would be taken towards that goal unless and until new leaders emerged --leaders "not compromised by terror," who would begin building "entirely new political and economic institutions, based on democracy, market economics, and action against terrorism." Shortly after the funeral of Yassir Arafat (which, we recall, proved an occasion for most of the world's statesmen to re-iterate their praise of the valiant and beloved father of liberty of his people, an inspiration to all who struggle everywhere against oppression) the Bush Administration began at once to detect and to celebrate in public statements the first signs of the appearance of that "new leadership." Nothing was said at the time of the fact that all the principals of the new regime, as of the old, were veteran accessories to many decades of terrorist assault upon the civilian life not only of Israel but of Europe, nor that their entire apprenticeship had been served out as sycophants in the court of this twentieth century Nebuchadnezzar. No accounting was required of the new leadership for the billions of dollars of development aid given over the years since Oslo -- aid which had developed only the Swiss bank accounts and the luxurious lifestyle of the PLO princes; nor was there to be any accounting for the multi-million dollar reverse-dowry for the expatriate widow. Asking questions about these matters would be rude, when what the moment needed was deference and goodwill. The entirely expected democratic endorsement at the polls of the PLO Executive's candidate provided everything that the Bush administration needed to begin fleshing out its portrait of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ahmed Qureia (Abu Alaa) as the leaders foretold in the prophecy of June 24, 2002.

Since then, Administration spokesmen, from the President on down, have sedulously underlined Abbas's entirely false claim to have succeeded where Arafat had failed in that he had turned a democratic mandate into a writ which even now has begun to run almost everywhere through the PA. In fact, it runs nowhere -- not even within the walls of the major PA institutions, let alone on the streets. Abbas is helpless to silence or to contain the ever-proliferating terrorist gangs who openly mock his leadership and have periodically invaded the premises of his own party and administration, even (just this week) occupying the Legislative Assembly in protest of something or other. The Palestinian judiciary has closed down sine die, in protest against the lack of respect that the gangs have for it. The corruption continues, the officially-sponsored mosques are preaching ever-fiercer instructions to the faithful to please Allah and hasten the end of days by annihilating Jews. Palestinian textbooks display maps which prove that Israel does not exist while teachers explain that it must be destroyed. Banners, wall posters and t-shirts are everywhere bearing the images of the shahids while Abbas makes limp-wristed protests in English against the "counter-productive" practice of suicide-bombing. As of a few days ago, terrorist actions this year against Israel had taken twenty-one Israeli lives, leaving another 238 wounded. In July 2005 alone there were 436 terrorist actions reported by Israeli authorities -- up from 426 during the same month last year, before Abbas had come to power. Quite apart from what the terrorists have gained from Abbas's non-compliance with his obligation to disarm them, Abbas has given them many gifts: he has belabored the Israeli government daily for release of all the multiple-murderers whom Israel has so painfully tracked down and locked up; of those already released under the effects of Abbas' demands, abetted by friendly public relations campaigns around the world, the best guess is that most of these are back in service to the cause of the annihilation of the Jews. Abbas has complained on a daily basis (again with support from international organizations which imagine themselves motivated by philanthropic and humanitarian concerns) to eliminate the border checkpoints which are the principal means of deterring terrorists; and he has driven the campaign against Israel's security wall to a successful conclusion at the UN.

Now that Gaza has that total freedom from Israeli rule which the idealists have pretended will cause the lion to lie down with the lamb, civilian life will complete its transition to the model of the Ivory Coast. Still, George Bush nods mildly as Abbas speaks of the slow but steady progress that he is making towards the great society. Absolutely nothing has been exacted from Abbas in return for all of this promotion. Arafat's lieutenant throughout all the years of the PLOs direction of terror against Israel from abroad, Abu Mazen has never disowned terrorism as a weapon against Israel. The most he has ever done (prompted by the U.S.) has been to condemn specific acts of terrorism as not serving the immediate goal of advancing the dismemberment of Israel via diplomacy.

Not long before the ink dried on my manuscript, Sharon had won election (January, 2003) by pledging not to negotiate with the PA until it proved capable of governing. Among other specifics, Sharon explicitly opposed, in fact dismissed as madness, the idea of handing Gaza over to the other side, making it another Lebanon on the southern flank, another perch for al-Qaeda: "One must not negotiate under fire," he declared. "There will be no concession to terror. A unilateral withdrawal is not a recipe for peace. It is a recipe for war." But in December of that same year, 2003, Sharon publicly broached for the first time his "disengagement plan" ---of which the key element was the dismantlement of a number of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. At the same time, he promised that Israel would "strengthen its control over those same areas in the land of Israel that will constitute an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future agreement."

When Sharon made public his plan to withdraw from Gaza, the Bush Administration took several days to react. Bush's Press Secretary initially interpreted the plan as "a unilateral step that would block the road to negotiations" and thus not something, apparently that the U.S. would support. After meeting again with Sharon, Bush endorsed the plan, and signed on to Sharon's new logic: that Israel would actually improve its strategic situation by shortening the lines it must defend, while likewise improving its diplomatic situation before the world by demonstrating willingness to move dramatically down the Road, building up credit to be used to resist the effort to make it return to the pre-67 borders.

But already everything that critics said could go wrong has begun to go wrong.

First of all, withdrawal from Gaza and Northern Samaria has already rendered irrelevant the "new leadership" of the PA. As the whole world watched the celebrations of the withdrawal from Gaza, this truth played itself out. Abbas had expressed the hope that celebrations over Israel's withdrawal would be restrained, presenting an image of maturity, or readiness for self-governance to the world. "Let us sing in praise of victory and unity and let's not forget the martyrs," he had said. Hoping to present a picture of unity to the world, Abbas's government had spent an estimated $1.7 for a great public celebration: 180,000 pairs of blue jeans and other souvenir items would be given away free, tens of thousands of posters with the slogan "Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem" were provided by an agency of the United Nations to mark the humiliation of Israel and the coming day of total liberation of the land from the Jews. But despite Abbas's urging that they not do so, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad held separate celebrations. More than 1,000 Hamas gunmen in military fatigue and bearing AK-437 rifles and RPG rocket-propelled grenades staged for the invited press a mock assault on an Israeli settlement, while Hamas leader Mahmour Zahar told another rally attending the graduation ceremony of the newest recruits for the movement's militia, Izzaddin Kassam: "As long as one inch of our land remains under occupation, these weapons will remain in the hands of the hamas soliders. These young men will continue to train others until all Palestinians are turned into fighters so that we could liberate Palestine from the [Jordan ] river to the sea."

It seems clear that Hamas has persuaded the vast majority of Palestinians that the "flight" of the Israelis from Gaza is the fruit of its policy of unremitting terror inside Israel, conducted while the officially-recognized Palestinian Authority has been pretending to negotiate. This accomplishment makes virtually inevitable the victory of Hamas at the next election to the Palestinian assembly -- which is why Abbas has already postponed it once to later this year, and will no doubt postpone it again, perhaps to the Greek kalends. Now in the wake of last week's contest, PA officials are bleating that Hamas's actions were "a serious challenge to the elected leadership of the Palestinians ... because they created the impression that we have two governments and two armies in the Gaza Strip."

The question of the hour is: How has the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and Northern Samaria affected the alliance between Israel and the U.S.? We find in various reports that Sharon, at one time or another has maintained in recent weeks that he has President Bush's support for completion of the security fence along Sharon's preferred line, a commitment to force Abbas to call off the deadly return of the refugees, support for the permanence of all the settlements that remain in place in Judea and assurance that Abbas will be required to dismantle Hamas and other terror organizations before starting again down the Road toward a Palestinian. Recently, Israeli officials hinted broadly that, as soon as the deed was done, President Bush would step forward with a public guarantee that the remaining settlements would be securely inside Israel in any final negotiations. That has not happened. It would be safest to guess that Sharon is imagining at least part of this, if not all of it.

To the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, who came to Jerusalem to plead with him not to tear down Gush Katif, Sharon responded: "This is what the State Deparment is demanding that I do and I must do it." The Israeli Ambassador to the US has told American audiences that "Prime Minister Sharon is left with no choice. He is doing exactly what the US expects him to do."

Will we ever get a straight bill of goods on this?

The notion of a pledge from President Bush to credit Israel with support on any of the big-ticket items on this list has been terribly shaken, if not shattered, by his Secretary of State's remarks made to the New York Times: "Everyone empathizes with what the Israelis are facing . . . [but] it cannot be Gaza only." Coming as they did even as the Israeli public was reeling from the sight of the forceful evacuation of about 10,000 Jews from their homes, these words sounded intentionally brutal. In any case, with these words, Secretary Rice has made it clear that no credit has been assigned to Israel for unilateral dismantling its assets.

It is significant that so long as Miss Rice was located in the White House as National Security Adviser, she spoke a tougher line towards the Palestinians, one which clearly reflected the thinking of George Bush's closest personal advisors -- a line which clearly reflected the foreign policy premises of the group which the press calls the foreign policy "hawks" but who long ago nicknamed themselves the Vulcans. This group of early supporters of candidate George W. Bush (C. Rice, Vice-President Bush, Armitage at State, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz at Defense ) had argued that the Israel/Palestine conflict could not be understood or managed apart from the whole Middle Eastern scene, where the menace to U.S. quiet and prosperity was terrorism, in all its protean manifestations, the scourge of political order everywhere in the Middle East. The opposite view was the State Department view, presented up until the end of the election year (2004) by Secretary Powell and now represented by Condoleezza Rice. This was the view that the U.S. was jeopardizing its most urgent goal (achieving and maintaining cooperation with the Arab states, especially the oil-producing ones) by the appearance of bias towards Israel and thus that to gain goodwill in the region as a whole the U.S. must be seen as able to draw concessions from Israel. Miss Rice is now playing Colin Powell to Dick Cheney and to her own former White House persona. Now she speaks the language of Conflict Resolution, the lingua franca of the State Department careerists.

Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post and Senior Middle East Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., sums up "the reason for Rice's insistent support for Abbas," as it was already emerging in the Spring of this year: "The US, in committing itself to George W. Bush's "vision" of the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and perhaps Jerusalem, has mortgaged its entire Middle East policy to a "solution" of the Palestinian conflict with Israel that has no relation whatsoever to realities on the ground. The reality on the ground is that Palestinian society is unified by a dedication to the destruction of Israel, not the establishment of a Palestinian state. Abbas is a reflection of his society." Eureka!

How do we account for the transformation of Sharon and Bush?

We all thought we understood Sharon. He is a noisy and hard-boiled character who had the virtue of fidelity to a flinty patriotism. His politics has never been complicated by religious understanding - - something which secular commentators have always portrayed as a strength. Now it appears that being noisy and tough-minded is not enough. The secular commentators were wrong. A man like Sharon can abandon his largest principals in a moment and be praised for pragmatism.

But the patriotism that Israel needs to keep her armed against the nihilists cannot live on pragmatism. It requires a larger sense of historical purpose than Ariel Sharon and his Labor Party allies can fathom. Sharon hopes to get a bigger mention in the history books than Rabin, by championing this project -- and he most certainly will. It was quite something to nullify the hard work of a lifetime, as Rabin did when he signed on to the Oslo illusion; it is something even grander to stand up and pay the price that Sharon is now paying to buy that horse again with what was supposed have been a major bargaining asset -- the right to be on the ground in Gaza, at the heart of the terrorist den.

Sharon's reversion has puzzled many who thought they understood him. An incredible range of theses in explanation of his conversion have appeared in print and throughout the blogosphere. Sharon himself says that evacuation from Gaza became possible and necessary because George Bush demanded it as a condition for support of the Israel's right to have a protective wall.

I closed my chapter on George W. Bush a little over a year ago describing Bush standing firm against the universal chorus of denunciators of Israel at that time. I made quite a point of Bush's adamant refusal to engage with the liar Arafat and also of his support of Sharon's realistic response to the terrorist campaign against Israel. These two themes -- expecting nothing from the PA and supporting the right of Israel to defend herself by all fair means in light of that reality -- seemed to me to be the keys to understanding Bush's policy.

You see my dilemma. I had Bush picking up the mantle of Truman, the reliable champion of Zion, fortified against pragmatism because of his authentic sensitivity to the larger realities of purpose in History. I saw this commitment reflected in his solidarity with Sharon. Now Sharon has gone wobbly (as Margaret Thatcher used to say) and Sharon is insisting that all of this is in order to be in step with George W. Bush. If this is true, Bush has joined the wobblies.

Particularly frustrating is the fact that this retreat from realism comes just as world opinion is being nudged back towards the post-9/11 spirit of defiance by the terrorist assaults in Britain. Britain's Tony Blair is publicly repenting of his own wobbliness regarding the Muslim menace.

If history repeats itself, we can expect Bush to move closer in the last years of his presidency towards the allure of what I called in my book, the "mystical appeal" of the issue of the Holy Land: the syndrome that makes a retiring President want to enter the History books for ever as the man who brought definitive Peace in the Middle East. To achieve the Peace that the Prophets spoke about would have such a stunning effect on the whole of mankind that everything else about a President would forever be seen in the glow of that millennial accomplishment. This is a deadly seduction from reality.

In my book, I argued that George W. Bush had it in him to resist the tinsel allure of becoming the Champion of Middle East Peace, to stand fast as the Champion of Israel, in the mold of Harry S. Truman. If he reverts to this path he will be seen by historians as capable of standing fast for reality in a world which prefers fantasy. Friends of Israel should hope (and, if it is in them) pray that he is still able to do so.

Paul C. Merkley is a retired Professor of History from Carleton University, a consultant on foreign policy matters, and the author of three scholarly books on attitudes towards Israel. The most recent one is called "American Presidents, Religion and Israel" (Praegar, 2004.)

This article appeared in IsraPundit August 29, 2005. It is archived at Thanks are due to Joseph Alexander Norland for encouraging its distribution.


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