by Scott McConnell
April 9, 2002
BUSH VS SHARON: THE SEQUEL
Who will prevail in the showdown between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon? Bush has asked Sharon to cease offensive military operations on the West Bank and begin to withdraw immediately; Sharon has replied that he will stop on his timetable, not Washington's.
Events have forced Bush to recognize that Washington's one-sided support for Israel is gnawing away at every American relationship in the Arab world, undermining the President's war against terrorism and potentially threatening its oil supplies. The President seems finally to understand that America's vital security interests are jeopardized by the absence of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
Sharon for his part has always felt that the only way to deal with Palestinian national aspirations is military force; throughout his long career, he has opposed every peace proposal and negotiation. Now, in the midst of intensifying war of terror and counter-terror, he seems to have enough political support in Israel to carry out a plan of destroying the nascent institutions of a Palestinian state. America's interests mean zilch to him.
Try to imagine the subject as it plays out in George W. Bush's mind. He is a man who did not read or reflect very much about the wider world for most of his life, now thrust suddenly into a circumstance in which hundreds of millions scrutinize his every word and gesture for nuance, and where his decisions have life and death consequences for much of the planet.
If he is like most Americans, with no particularly strong convictions about the Middle East other than a vague desire not to get harmed by the issue, the course of least resistance is to cede the Arab-Israel portfolio to the most pro-Israel people he knows. Running for president with something of a reputation as a lightweight to overcome, there was no downside to doing this. If you are Bush and let it be known early on that you are completely on Israel's side, meet regularly with neoconservative intellectuals, have one or two of them on your campaign staff, you are likely to find yourself the beneficiary of articles describing your intellectual curiosity and surprising range, what a quick study you are, etc. Shelving a vexatious issue and solidifying your reputation on a vulnerable front, a pro-Israel stance kills two birds with one stone.
In Bush's case however, the matter is hugely complicated by what happened to his father. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush had the most noteworthy showdown with Israel and the American Israeli lobby of any American president. While the outcome was mixed, the President definitely lost on points.
In early September of 1991, Israel's right wing government had asked Washington for a loan guarantee for $10 billion in commercial paper seeking the new credit line to finance the resettlement of Jews leaving the Soviet Union. Bush had six months earlier driven Saddam Hussein's armies from Kuwait, helped by a broad Arab coalition; he then was planning to convene an unprecedented peace conference in Madrid. And he didn't want to undermine the conference by subsidizing massively the settlement of a million new immigrants to Israel on Palestinian land in the West Bank where the Shamir government was inclined to place many of them.
Bush asked Congress to delay the loan guarantees for four months. The Israeli lobby shifted into gear; one day, about a thousand lobbyists began paying visits to Congressional offices, making the case for the United States to dispense the guarantees immediately.
Anyone who has worked on the Hill will tell you that Israel lobbyists always present their case well. Three or four lobbyists will arrive, each prepared to make a different point. But behind the presentation is an understanding that never has to be made explicit: the Israeli lobby has tremendous financial clout, and if it decides to start funneling campaign donations to your opponents, your future in politics will become difficult and probably be short. As Michael Lind pointed in out in the British journal Prospect, the Israel lobby functions differently from other ethnic lobbies, which promise to mobilize voters for and against various candidates. The Israel lobby works more on the model of the national lobbies like the NRA and pro-choice and right-to life movements, dispensing funds on a national basis to help or punish. It has the reputation of being the most effective and potent lobby of them all.
Confronting a lobbying storm against his effort to slow down the loan guarantees, then President Bush stepped before the microphones and said "I heard today there were something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy doing it." He spoke further about being "up against some powerful political forces."
At this point, the loan guarantees had massive political backing in Congress, the branch of government which attends lobbies most closely – the Israel lobby and others. For a while, Bush's complaint helped shift the balance; Congressional support for overriding the President's opposition to the four month moratorium on the guarantees dissolved overnight. It wasn't actually a showdown Israel got its funds later; and the Madrid Peace Conference spawned the Oslo agreements. But there was a confrontation of sorts, and initially the President seemed to come out ahead.
But at a price. Within days there a buzz of commentary, audible to anyone paying attention: many Jews interpreted Bush's words about the lobbyists as an anti-Semitic attack on them. Malcolm Hoenlein, director of the Presidents Conference, an influential and centrist Jewish organization, issued a statement decrying Bush's comments as an assault on the Jewish right to practice citizen advocacy. Meanwhile, the White House began receiving a lot of troubling mail, congratulating the President for speaking out against "the lobby."
President Bush wrote an apologetic letter to the chairman of the Presidents Conference, talking of his great respect for lobbyists, and apologizing for being the source of any hurt feelings.
That seemed to put the issue to rest. But it didn't go away. In September, a close Bush political ally, Richard Thornburgh, held a big lead in an off year race for Pennsylvania's vacant Senate seat. Suddenly his 44 percentage point lead began to evaporate, and Harris Wofford began to gain. The media attributed Wofford's surge to a sudden outbreak of interest in the health insurance issue. But insiders noted that money, the mother's milk of politics, played a decisive role. As J.J. Goldberg points out in his book Jewish Power (my principle source for this discussion) "within a week after Bush's September 12 press conference, Republican and Democratic fundraisers alike began noticing a distinct shift in donations away from Thornburgh and towards Wofford." FEC filings showed that while Thornburgh throughout 1991 had been raising money at twice the rate of Wofford, that ratio was reversed in the campaign's final weeks. Jewish donors who had played prominent roles in Thornburgh's campaign throughout the year abandoned it at the end. After the campaign, Thornburgh told Bush that he felt he had been the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, the tell-tale first victim of President Bush's suddenly emergent problem with Jewish voters and contributors.
Many factors went into Bush's 1992 defeat. Ross Perot's ascendance and the weak economy make it difficult to gauge the importance of the loan guarantee issue in taking him down from stratospheric approval ratings he enjoyed in the spring of 1991.
But in 2002 it is hard to imagine that the topic of the defeat and all the reasons for it doesn't come up frequently in conversation between father and son. Here the former President Bush had marshalled a difficult domestic and foreign coalition to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, a task for which he was praised as masterful. Six months later, he was depicted as a practitioner of "if not anti-Semitism, then something very close to it" (in the phrasing of American Jewish Congress leader Jacqueline Levine) and soon suffered crushing electoral defeat.
What lesson does his son draw from this, as his faceoff with Sharon makes the headlines around the world every day? That the Israel lobby needs to be appeased at all costs if one is to survive politically? Or something more akin to the words attributed to (and denied by) then Secretary of State James Baker "F*** Them, They didn't vote for us anyway."
The blunt fact is that the political vulnerability cuts both ways. A veiled battle with the Israel lobby would wound severely the Bush presidency. But Washington, as Israel's financial and military benefactor and only real foreign friend, has the power to bring down Sharon's government. If it were to let out, quietly but unambiguously, that Sharon was severely jeopardizing good American relations with Israel, Sharon's government would not survive two weeks. If it made it clear that it thought it could deal much more effectively with an Israeli government committed to seeking a fair peace with the Palestinians, rather than smashing them, it would have a huge impact on Israeli voters.
Clearly, this would be a extremely risky course in the time of extreme violence and volatility. The Clinton administration did demonstrate to Israel that it felt Netanyahu was a poor choice as leader – and influenced the Israeli electorate to vote for Barak. But even though the Mid East was boiling then, the intensity of violence was much less than current levels.
The present situation is dangerous and volatile; there are risks for President Bush in whatever course he chooses. But the current trajectory – which has Sharon stomping on America's reputation throughout the Arab world while he pummels the inhabitants of the West Bank holds the greater risks. There is considerable consensus that the most-pro-Western governments in the Arab world, Jordan and Egypt, are far from ideal; they have taken only tentative steps toward democracy; their economies are riddled with corruption. But for American interests, they are much better than the radical fundamentalist governments that would replace them. And that is the alternative: if Sharon continues to fan the flames of anti-Americanism, friendly regimes in the Arab world will fall, probably violently. We might not have one Saddam Hussein but several. That is the message President Bush is receiving from every diplomatic post in the Arab world, and why Bush and his top foreign policy people are demanding in ever more urgent tones that Sharon pull back.
If Bush sees it through, compelling an Israeli withdrawal and beginning to work actively for a two state settlement, he will risk a showdown with the Israel lobby at home as least as severe as the one that wounded his father, and probably much worse. He will be accused, as his father was, of anti-Semitism. (Indeed, I have heard those accusations bandied about already, as soon as he called last Thursday for an Israeli pullback.) But he would likely survive it, and come out all the stronger on the other end.
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