Political observers in Washington are virtually unanimous that domestic US election concerns drove President George W. Bush’s decision last week to endorse Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for “unilateral disengagement,” agree that Israel will not have to return to the borders of 1949, and declare that Palestinian refugees will be resettled in a Palestinian state “rather than Israel.”
At first glance, these positions seem a stunning reversal of decades of US policies holding that Israeli settlements are illegal or at least “obstacles to peace.” They also appear to contradict the president’s own “road map” which reserves issues including “borders, Jerusalem, refugees, (and) settlements” to be determined through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at an international conference.
On the other hand, Bush supporters have been quick to point out that his positions mirror those which informed President Bill Clinton’s efforts to broker a Middle East peace at Camp David and Taba in 2000.
Some say Bush is merely formalizing long-established understandings that Israel will not have to leave all its settlements and that Palestinian refugees will not be permitted to return to Israel in large numbers, in the same way he was the first president to formally call for the creation of a Palestinian state.
It is widely believed in Washington that both Bush and his father see the elder Bush’s challenge to Israel over settlements as a major factor contributing to his loss in 1992 to Bill Clinton, and that Bush junior is determined not to repeat this mistake.
A Republican insider close to Bush agreed that election concerns played a role in the his shift, but said privately: “Bush continuously returns to the theme of the creation of a Palestinian state.”
He suggested that if Bush is re-elected, he would likely rethink some of the implications of his recent statements, saying, “after the election, there will be more options for dealing with Israel, and more ways of getting leverage.”
“The bottom line is that the only thing permanent about this is that the Israelis will leave Gaza,” he added, “everything else will be subject to change.”
The administration official who has pushed most forcefully for Bush to embrace Sharon’s plan is Elliott Abrams, the senior Middle East policy official at the National Security Council and a strong supporter of the Israeli far right. Abrams and other pro-Israel neoconservatives in the administration have presented this strong tilt toward Sharon as part of a strategic vision for the future of the Middle East. They argue that if Sharon pulls out of Gaza with US support, Palestinians will be able to construct effective institutions there which can pave the way for ending the occupation in much of the West Bank as well, setting the stage for at the creation of a Palestinian state.
At an April 14 briefing orchestrated by Abrams, a “senior administration official” was spinning furiously in that direction: “There’s nothing in this paper, in what the President said or his letter, that changes our policy on settlements. What’s new is that Sharon has decided to abandon settlements, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. We think that is a very positive precedent.”
But even those sympathetic to these strategic arguments see signs of election-year calculations at work. The Jewish Telegraph Agency quotes David Makovsky of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy as saying “Iraq points to the need of the administration for some achievement,” and that it “will want to showcase the Gaza pullout as an example of its success in the region.”
Many in Washington have expressed skepticism that the president’s embrace of Sharon’s unilateral plans will enhance the administration’s aura of being in control of developments in the Middle East.
Theodore H. Kattouf, until recently US ambassador to Syria and a State Department veteran, observed, “There may well be some who hope that this will lay the groundwork for a two-state solution and force the Palestinians into what they regard as a more realistic approach to peacemaking.” “But,” he continued, “it does not appear the Administration gave enough weight to how such a dramatic tilt would affect vital US interests in the region, especially Iraq, at such a difficult and sensitive time.”
Kattouf suggested election concerns were indeed at play, saying “senior officials are aware of the contretemps that surrounded the Bush (senior) when he took a stand against further settlement activity and … reduced loans to Israel on a dollar-for-dollar basis.”
But Kattouf said there were strategic as well as political motivations for the policy shift, as Bush and his advisers “almost certainly see the value in having the architect of the settlement movement dismantle some of those settlements, (and) establishing a precedent the importance of which should not be underestimated.”
“The real question,” Kattouf said, “is, did they overpay for something that most Israelis wanted to do in any case? I would argue they did.”