A growing debate within Israel over whether United
States President George W. Bush's Middle East policies really serve the interests
of the Jewish state has spread to Washington, where influential voices within
the U.S. Jewish community are questioning the administration's hard-line positions
in the region.
Coming in the wake of the month-long war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah,
during which Washington provided virtually unconditional support and encouragement
to Tel Aviv, the debate has focused initially on the wisdom of Bush's efforts
to isolate rather than engage Syria, the indispensable link in the military
supply chain between Iran and the Shia militia.
But the debate over Syria policy may mark the launch of a broader challenge
among Israel's supporters here to the administration's reliance on unilateralism,
military power, and "regime change" in the Middle East whose
most fervent champions have been neoconservatives and the right-wing leadership
of the so-called "Israel lobby."
"Bush has been convinced by self-appointed spokesmen for Israel and the
Jewish community that endless war is in Israel's interest," asserted
the lead editorial in the U.S.' most important Jewish newspaper, the Forward,
immediately after the cease-fire took effect.
"[Bush] needs to hear in no uncertain terms that Israel is ready for dialogue,
that the alternative endless jihad is unthinkable," declared
the paper, which argued for Israel's participation in a regional dialogue with
its Arab neighbors, including Syria, for a comprehensive peace settlement. "Now
is time to change the tune," the Forward concluded.
While such a regional negotiation is unlikely to be accepted either by Washington
or Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the short term, the question of engaging
Syria is rapidly moving up the agenda both in Israel, where several Cabinet
ministers have endorsed the idea, and in Washington, where the traditional foreign
policy elite from Republican realists like former Deputy Secretary of
State Richard Armitage to Democratic internationalists such as former Secretaries
of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright publicly criticized
Bush for rejecting talks with Damascus, at the very least to probe its willingness
to rein in Hezbollah, if not loosen its alliance with Iran, during the past
"I can't for the life of me understand why we don't [talk with] Syria,"
said James Dobbins, an analyst at the RAND Corporation who, as a senior State
Department official, coordinated the Bush administration's diplomacy during
and immediately after the war in Afghanistan.
"I think this idea that we don't talk to our enemies simply has to be
jettisoned," he told a forum at the New America Foundation (NAF) in Washington
Dobbins' critique echoes those raised by a number of prominent Jewish figures,
such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, former UN ambassador
Richard Holbrooke, and Dennis Ross, the main U.S. negotiator on Israeli-Palestinian
issues under Bush's father and former President Bill Clinton, and organizations
in recent weeks.
The most direct challenge surfaced here Tuesday when the Zionist group Americans
for Peace Now (APN) sent a letter to Bush calling on him to clarify whether
his administration opposes renewed peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.
"Unfortunately, many in Israel and the U.S. believe that your administration
is standing in the way of renewed Israel-Syria contacts. We urge you to clarify,
publicly and expeditiously, that this is not the case" said the letter,
which also called on Bush to "reject the thinking of those who view the
Syrian regime as irredeemable."
While the administration is likely to dodge the question, its commitment to
isolating Syria, particularly since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has never been in doubt.
Indeed, in the opening days of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel, the
White House not only reportedly rebuffed an appeal by Israeli Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert himself for Washington to quietly approach Damascus about pressing
Hezbollah to release two Israeli soldiers whose capture touched off the crisis,
but also urged Olmert, according to one account in the Jerusalem Post,
to attack Syria directly.
"In a meeting with a very senior Israeli official, [Deputy National Security
Adviser Elliot] Abrams indicated that Washington would have no objection if
Israel chose to extend the war beyond to its other northern neighbor, leaving
the interlocutor in no doubt that the intended target was Syria," a well-informed
source, who received an account of the meeting from one of its participants,
told IPS this week.
While Abrams was discreetly urging Israel to expand the war to Syria, his neoconservative
allies, some of whom, like former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle
and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, are regarded as close
to Vice President Dick Cheney, were more explicit, to the extent even of expressing
disappointment over Israel's lack of aggressiveness or success in "getting
the job done."
Cheney's own Middle East advisers, John Hannah and David Wurmser, have long
favored "regime change" in Damascus, and, according to the New
York Times, argued forcefully and successfully with help from Abrams
and pressure from the Israel lobby's leadership against efforts by Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice to persuade Bush to open a channel to Syria in an
effort to stop the recent fighting.
But Bush's adamant refusal to engage Damascus is precisely what has raised
doubts in Israel about whether his policies are in the long-term or even in
the immediate interests of the Jewish state.
Since the cease-fire, a growing number of former and current senior Israeli
officials, including Olmert's defense, interior, and foreign ministers, have
called for talks with Damascus. And, while Olmert himself has rejected the idea
for now, he has also abandoned his previous precondition for such talks
that Washington remove Syria from its terrorism list.
Of the officials, the two most important are both former Likud Party members
Interior Minister Avi Dichter, the former head of Israel's Shin Bet intelligence
agency, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who reportedly enjoys a strong relationship
with Rice and has appointed her former chief of staff, Yaakov Dayan, to explore
possible ways to engage Syria.
Meanwhile, other prominent Israelis are asking even more basic questions about
the regional strategy pursued by Bush and its consequences for Israel.
In a column published by the Ha'aretz newspaper last week, former Foreign
Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami argued that, in the aftermath of the Lebanon war, which,
in his view, had "proven the limits of [Israeli] power," a peace accord
with Syria and the Palestinians had become "essential" for Israel,
particularly in light of "the worrisome decline of the status of Israel's
ally in this part of the world and beyond."
"U.S. deterrence, and respect for the superpower have been eroded unrecognizably,"
he wrote. "An exclusive Pax Americana in the Middle East is no longer possible
because not only is the U.S. not an inspiration today, it does not instill fear."
Indeed, the widespread perception that Washington's influence in the region
has fallen sharply as a result of both the war in Iraq and the administration's
stubborn refusal to engage its foes diplomatically has raised new questions
about whether Bush and his neoconservative advisers have actually made Israel
less rather than more secure.
"[The] Bush administration at first avoided and then was unable to deliver
the diplomatic agility that was called for, and that is bad news for Israel,"
former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy in this week's Forward.
"The United States had no direct channels to or leverage with key actors,
and could not commit troops to any cease-fire implementation force."
"The idea that current American policy advances Israeli security and national
interests is thoroughly discredited something that is now openly aired
in the Israeli media, and raised, albeit in more discreet circles, by Israeli
Cabinet ministers," according to Levy, who currently directs the NAF's
and Century Foundation's Middle East Initiative.
(Inter Press Service)