'Christian Zionism and Jewish Extremism'

Friday, December 19, 2003

Bush Warned: Don’t Push Israel

After Saddam capture, threats from conservatives not to back Geneva.

James D. Besser - Washington Correspondent

Hussein’s capture could encourage Bush administration to move more aggressively on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Leading Christian and Jewish conservatives warned the Bush administration this week not to use the dramatic capture of Saddam Hussein as the launch pad for new U.S. initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Gary Bauer, a former GOP presidential contender who now heads the conservative group American Values, said he is “uncertain” about the Bush administration’s Mideast policy in the wake of the Hussein capture, but cautioned against using the president’s new political and diplomatic clout to pressure Israel.

“I expect to work enthusiastically for the president’s re-election,” he said in a veiled warning to the White House. “But even exceptional presidents make mistakes.”

Bauer said one mistake might be giving in to forces inside the State Department that want to move beyond the administration’s Mideast “road map,” perhaps more fully embracing the controversial Geneva Accord, the unofficial peace agreement worked out between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

Calling Geneva “the nightmare scenario,” Bauer said the administration’s recent flirtation with the plan and its backers “makes absolutely no sense, in my view.”

The warnings came as the Geneva initiative was thrust into the 2004 presidential battle — former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the Democratic frontrunner, spoke approvingly this week of it — and as the administration waited for a critical speech on Thursday in which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was expected to lay out his peace plan.

A top Jewish analyst agreed with Bauer that the administration may be tempted to capitalize on its Hussein triumph with a big new Israeli-Palestinian initiative.

“I see this administration as having an ambition in the Middle East — on Iraq, on democratization in the Arab world, on the Arab-Israel conflict — that is without parallel in American history,” said Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum and a pro-Israel hard-liner. “The more success it has, the more it is encouraged to pursue these goals.”

The capture of Hussein, he said, could encourage administration factions that want to move more aggressively on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

“It could well be that success in Iraq will lead to more ambitious policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” Pipes said. “It’s a time of rethinking and reassessment. So far, there are contradictory signals coming from the administration.”

Other Jewish activists agree that the capture of Hussein opens a window of opportunity for U.S. policymakers, but say most signs point to a continued U.S. holding action in the region, not a new peace thrust.

“In theory, the capture of Saddam should open a window,” said Henry Siegman, director of the Middle East program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a leading dove. But Siegman said the administration is unlikely to exploit it aggressively.

“My reading is that there are people in the State Department who are arguing vigorously that there’s a new window of opportunity, but at the White House, [President Bush] is being told to play it safe,” he said.

In Iraq, Hussein may be in custody, but the war is far from over, Siegman said, and there likely will be setbacks ahead, diminishing the administration’s appetite for new, risky initiatives.

And the “exigencies of the election” mean that “we probably will not see a willingness by the president to do much more than he decided to do a while ago — to ease up his involvement, to limit U.S. involvement to providing a certain equilibrium and stability, not to push the parties to take new initiatives,” Siegman said.

Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, said: “I don’t see any radical change in policy. What this does do is further undercut the radicals, the jihadists in the region, on a wide range of issues.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the past three years of Mideast strife have given the administration a much more realistic view of the limits of dramatic peacemaking.

“They realize you can’t impose an agreement,” he said. “They’re no longer looking for a huge solution all at once but just small steps to ease the situation. They’re looking for as much quiet as possible as they focus on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Hoenlein applauded that approach. Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now, argued that it’s a wasted opportunity. Rosenblum agreed that the administration’s focus is likely to remain on short-term crisis management, despite some recent hints of change.

Early this week, Bush bluntly warned Israel not to “make decisions that make it hard to create a Palestinian state.”

A senior U.S. diplomat, David Satterfield, said in the region that Israel has done “too little for far too long to translate its repeatedly stated commitment to facilitate Palestinian reform into reality.”

And several weeks ago Secretary of State Colin Powell ignored protests by the Sharon government and met with the authors of the Geneva plan. But those actions did not represent an incipient change in U.S. policy, Rosenblum said.

“They’ve sent out some red lights to Sharon,” he said. “But this is just damage control.”

The final triumph over Saddam Hussein “will allow the president more latitude in doing damage control,” Rosenblum said, “but I don’t see it being a transformative event in the region. It hasn’t removed the fundamental calculations of the administration about what the president needs to do to maximize his chances to win four more years.”

Rosenblum, representing a leading peace group, said he believes a more aggressive peace effort ultimately would help the president’s re-election effort — but “I don’t think that’s the argument being heard within the administration.”

But with an election in the offing, Bush may be more interested in pleasing Christian conservatives than Jewish peace process supporters.

“He may be worried about losing some Jewish votes, but that’s not a big factor,” said a Jewish Democrat this week. “But if even some of the Evangelicals stay at home on Nov. 2 because he pressured Israel, that could be a big problem in a close election.

“Capturing Saddam may have improved his political prospects, but it didn’t change some of the political realities that have made him very cautious on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”

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Milton Frihetsson, 2:49 AM | link | |