In contrast, this article argues that the Bush administration’s policy was driven primarily by strategic calculations grounded on a rational, established, and robust conception of U. S. strategic interests and priorities. Under the circumstances, this dictated that the administration concentrate on management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and only modest steps aimed at facilitating future agreements. The Bush administration was not always passive regarding the peace process; nor did it always adopt a pro-Israeli position. Overall, the degree and nature of the administration’s involvement in the peace process and its level of support or opposition to Israeli policy varied significantly, primarily in response to external politics, i.e., the way the parties to the conflict related to each other and the way they acted towards the United States and its broader strategic interests in the region.
In this vein, it is argued that before 9/11 the Bush administration did not adopt a particularly pro-Israel policy. 9/11 refocused U. S. strategic priorities, such that the cocktail of political radicalism and terrorism in the Middle East came to be viewed as a major strategic threat to the United States. However, the shift to a pro-Israel policy was not a direct result of 9/11, but rather a result of the way Israel and Palestinians responded to 9/11. The turning point was the discovery of the ‘Karine A’ ship laden with weapons from Iran bound for the Palestinian Authority, as it demonstrated not only Arafat’s involvement with terrorism, but also his links with a radical regime opposed to the United States.Below, U. S. strategic interests and priorities regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict are analyzed. The approach of Bush’s critics in this regard is outlined and then rebuffed. An alternative conception of U. S. interests and priorities is then presented which, it is proposed, formed the basis of Bush’s policy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Following this, the claims of Bush’s critics of regarding the centrality of ideology and domestic politics in the administration’s policy are outlined and then refuted. Subsequently, the correlation between U, S. strategic interests and the policy of the Bush administration is demonstrated.
U. S. Strategic Interests and Priorities in the Middle East
Critics of the administration argue that the extreme unpopularity of America in the Arab world3 is primarily a result of the Bush administration’s policies, particularly its support for Israel, and not U. S. values or identity. This is because the Palestinian issue resonates widely on a symbolic level, making it a core identity issue for most Arabs. According to this approach only a pro-Palestinian approach to the peace process, including heavy pressure on Israel, will improve America’s standing in the Arab world and bring stability to the Middle East.4
Others, however, have argued convincingly that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the key to securing all other U. S. interests in the region, but rather one of several factors that make the Middle East a particularly unstable region.5 From this perspective, distancing the United States from Israel is viewed as a deeply flawed basis for long-term strategy (even though it could occasionally useful as a short-term tactic to ease Arab allies’ path to supporting controversial U. S. actions). Even if the Washington dropped its pro-Israel stance and the Arab-Israeli conflict was to be resolved, major threats to U. S. interests in the region would persist. This is because anti-Americanism is largely the product of self-interested manipulation by various groups within Arab society. The secular ruling elites use it as a means to distract attention from their regimes’ failures and repression. It also helps to protect them from attacks from the radical opposition. The intellectuals cannot criticize the regimes, but criticizing the United States gives them an outlet and it makes them feel important. Meanwhile, Islamic radicals use anti-Americanism because attacking their real target, the regimes, is impossible. Radicals also attack America precisely because they fear Western values embodied by the United States are a threat because they have great potential to become popular. Holding America responsible for everything wrong in their lives makes the masses feel better and provides an explanation of how the world works.6
Anti-Americanism needs to be set in the political context, not of the Palestinian issue, but of the battle between anti-Western radicals and their opponents in the region. This factor played a key role in the background to 9/11, another case of radical groups wishing to seize power in the region.7 In this vein, the 2002 “Cairo Declaration Against U. S. Hegemony,” supported by 400 delegates, mentions Palestine only peripherally. The main thrust of the document condemns Washington for monopolizing power and reinstating colonialism. As Joseph Joffe put it, “Iran’s Khomeinists have it right, so to speak, when they denounce America as the “Great Satan” and Israel only as the “Little Satan,” a handmaiden of U. S. power.”8
The root causes of this wave of anti-Americanism are thus dependent on internal needs and forces. Consequently, these groups will continue to pursue anti-Americanism whatever changes Washington makes to its policy on Israel and the Palestinians. As even Telhami, a critic of Bush, admits a change of U. S. policy on Palestine will not stop terrorism against America because al-Qaida and Islamic fundamentalists are not primarily concerned with the Palestinians, and in any case they would not accept any settlement in which Israel continued to exist. Nor is the Arab public’s rage at the United States over its support for Sharon likely to lead them to support active participation in a war on behalf of Palestinians.9 Meanwhile, despite the anger of the ‘Arab street,’ U. S. allies in the Arab world have continued to co-operate strategically with the U. S. , for example during the Iraq war, even as their state sponsored media adopt an anti-American line for domestic political purposes.10 Indeed, a former leading radical state, Libya, has recently taken major steps towards reconciliation with the United States in spite of the second Intifada and Bush’s support for Sharon.
If the critics of the president are mistaken, what are U. S. strategic interests with regard to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? First, America only has a practical interest in focusing on an effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under two conditions: First, that the settlement would strengthen the U. S. position against radical opponents in the region as a whole. Second, that the parties are clearly interested in it. If the parties are not ripe for conflict resolution, Washington will be unable to impose a comprehensive peace agreement for strategic reasons unrelated to domestic U. S. politics, as the balance of motivations favors local parties.11 To invest time and energy in pursuit of a permanent settlement in the absence of ripeness is to court failure, which would lead to a damaging loss of U. S. prestige in the region and beyond. In the absence of a genuine opportunity for conflict resolution, the core U. S. interest lies in the management of the Arab-Israeli conflict, preventing the conflict from escalating into a regional war that would threaten core U. S. interests. Only a war involving Iran and/or the Arab states would seriously threaten regional instability and world oil prices. In addition, even if the parties are not ripe for conflict resolution, the United States has an interest in facilitating future conflict resolution by not allowing the parties to adopt policies that would make this more difficult. An example of such an action would be to severely limit Israeli settlement activity in order to keep open the possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state in the future.12
Strategic Interests, External Politics and U. S. Policy towards Israel
In the past, this type of strategic calculation has often served as the basis of U. S. policy towards Israel, with domestic politics and ideological factor reduced to a secondary role. For example, the Nixon administration increased aid to Israel nine-fold in 1971 after Israel mobilised to save the pro-U. S. regime of King Hussein from the attempt of Soviet allies Syria and the PLO to overthrow. Nixon was not known for his sympathy for Jews, nor were U. S. Jews important to his domestic political standing.13
The flip side of this argument is that even known friends of Israel are prepared to confront it when U. S. interests demand. For example, President Reagan defeated AIPAC over the sale of AWACS to key U. S. ally Saudi Arabia in 1981 and opened diplomatic contacts with the PLO in 1988 (when the PLO fulfilled long-standing U. S. conditions for such a dialogue) despite the vehement opposition of the Israeli government.
The robustness of this conception of U. S. interests is demonstrated by the fact that it was even articulated by an administration that had proven its willingness to take on and defeat the pro-Israel lobby14 and that was not ideologically sympathetic to Israel – the second Eisenhower administration.15 During his first administration, Eisenhower focused on trying to reach a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict on terms favorable to the Arab side16. However, the Egyptian president, Nasser, was uninterested in these U. S. efforts, instead adopting policies hostile to Washington, flirting with the Soviets and fomenting revolution against pro-Western regimes. Subsequently, the second Eisenhower administration shifted its focus from resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict to containing the threat from the pro-Soviet Nasserite radicals, as epitomized by the declaration of the Eisenhower Doctrine. Against this background, Eisenhower also rethought his approach to Israel, telling the National Security Council that it was logical, “to support Israel as the only strong pro-West power left in the Middle East.”17
Politics, Ideology and Bush’s Policy18 in the Arab-Israeli Arena
Against this background, Israel is viewed as part of ‘the West’, while the Arab world tends to be viewed as external to ‘the West’ and hostile to Western values. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that Israel is a democracy also encourages American to identify with it. In terms of domestic politics, Israel has been a focus of prestige and pride for American Jewry. Consequently, American Jews voting behaviour in presidential and congressional elections is influenced by the perceived stance of the candidates on Israel. While American Jews constitute less than three percent of the American population, their very high turnout rate and their geographical location in crucial Electoral College states, make their vote important. In addition, there is the role of the pro-Israel lobby led by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which is particularly influential in Congress.19 The most notable example of the importance of these domestic factors is U. S. support for the creation of Israel, which was advocated by President Truman’s domestic political advisor and by Congress, but opposed by the State and Defense Departments.20
In the contemporary context, George W. Bush’s critics have charged that neoconservative ideology played a central role in determining the administration’s policy. According to this theory, a neo-conservative cabal took control of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy, marginalizing professionals within the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA. The names usually mentioned are Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith; former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle; National Security Council member responsible for the Arab-Israeli arena, Elliott Abrams; Lewis Libby; Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and a lower ranked State Department official, David Wurmser. 21
It is argued or heavily implied that these officials, all of whom are Jewish, based America’s Middle East policy, not merely on the basis of U. S. concerns, but also based on their affinity with Israel. This affinity is said to rest on a combination of shared ethnicity, admiration for Israeli democracy, and support for Likud’s ideological opposition to surrendering territory captured by Israel in 1967.22 In this vein, General Anthony Zinni, one of President Bush’s envoys to the Middle East in 2001-2, stated that these officials saw the invasion of Iraq as “a way to strengthen the position of Israel.”23 The same charge was made by voices across the political spectrum, such as Pat Robertson and former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart.24In addition, according to the critics, the Bush administration’s pro-Sharon policy was heavily determined by domestic politics. A 2002 survey by the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm, found that evangelical Christians are more likely to express support for Israel than all other ethnic or religious groups in the United States except Jews.25 Aside from the fact that Bush himself is a born-again Christian, evangelical Christians have become an increasingly important group in Presidential elections, both because of their large number and their high turnout rate, making up twenty-three percent of the U. S. electorate and thirty-two percent of Bush voters in the 2000 election.26
Against this background, President Bush is said to have paid particularly close attention to the powerful Christian fundamentalist element within the Republican Party, which is ideologically opposed to Israel withdrawing from any area of the Holy Land.27 This element is particularly influential in Congress28 and includes among its members former Republican House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and House Republican Leader Dick Armey.29 Indeed, 2000-2002 Republican members of House of Representatives associated with the Christian Right were more supportive of Israel than liberal Democrats.30 In addition, evangelical groups, some of whom are linked to the far right in Israel31, are said to be increasingly acceptable to American Jews as political allies regarding Israel, despite their radically different stances on domestic issues.32 With regard to American Jews, because of the extremely close vote in the 2000 election, the Bush administration was said to be interested in improving its support among American Jews, who play an important role in presidential elections. In particular, Bush grew close to orthodox Jews, most of whom are hawkish.33
The rhetoric of the administration has been cited as proof of this theory, for example, when Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld referred to the ‘so-called occupied territories’ or when President Bush referred to Sharon as a ‘man of peace’ at the very moment Israel was launching its largest military action in the West Bank since 1967.34 Finally, the power of the pro-Israel lobby more generally, along with the concomitant support for Israel in Congress, is said to have pressured the administration to support Sharon. For example, at their first official meeting, Sharon pressed Bush not to invite Arafat to the White House unless he publicly called for an end to the violence, a request endorsed by nearly 300 members of Congress (87 Senators and 209 House members).35 Bush never met Arafat.
Against the Primacy of Domestic Politics and Ideology
Regarding evangelicals’ supposed influence over Bush’s policy, they appear to have affected the short-term rhetoric of the administration more than its actual policies. For example, in April 2002 the Bush administration received over 100,000 emails from Christian conservatives protesting the administration’s criticism of Operation Defensive Shield. Almost immediately afterward the president’s tone changed as he came to Israel’s defence.42 Nonetheless, on 4 April President Bush called for Israel to withdraw from the cities they had entered.43 Israel duly withdrew and Powell and Tenet were then sent to try and negotiate a cease-fire. Moreover, despite receiving more than 50,000 post cards from Christian conservatives in the fortnight following the announcement of the Road Map, and despite opposition to the “road trap” within the Republican party, as well as from eighty-eight U. S. senators, the administration tried to encourage progress along the lines envisaged by the Road Map after Abu Mazen became Palestinian prime minister in the spring of 2003. To this end, in June 2003 Bush visited the Middle East, meeting with Abu Mazen and Sharon at the Aqaba summit.44 In fact, the Bush administration actually moderated the stance of some evangelicals. For example, Jerry Falwell reversed his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state due to Bush’s position on the issue.45
As regards the 2004 election campaign, there was little to choose between Bush and Kerry on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both supported Sharon’s plan for disengagement within the context of the Road Map, both opposed settlement construction and neither viewed Arafat as a partner for negotiations. As a result, despite Bush’s pro-Israel stance, around three-quarters of American Jews voted for Kerry, in-line with their liberal preferences in terms of domestic U. S. politics.48
U. S. Public Opinion
Neoconservatism and Israel
First, Americans in general are very pro-Israel for a variety of reasons including a shared Judeo-Christian culture, Israel’s general support for the United States, and its democratic nature.54 Thus, neoconservative support for Israel is neither unique, nor can it be reduced to shared ethnicity. Many neoconservatives are not Jewish and are still strongly supportive of Israel — for example, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and John Bolton. It is the fact that Israel has been a stable democracy in spite of the ever-present Arab-Israeli conflict that has earned it the ideological support of the neoconservatives.
This same ideology led neoconservatives to support American military intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s to prevent the gross abuse of Muslim human rights by the Serb regime there.55 Moreover, this has led neoconservatives to vigorously oppose major aspects of Israeli policy — for example, Israel’s defense relationship with China — because they view it as a threat to Taiwan, a democratic friend of the United States.56
Second, the idea is wrong that the neoconservatives are united with the Likud by a shared ideological commitment to the territorial integrity of ‘the whole land of Israel’ and the settlement enterprise. While some members of the Bush administration associated with neoconservatism were opposed to the Oslo process, their reasoning was primarily based on a hawkish approach to non-democratic regimes and perpetrators of terrorism in general. For example, Richard Pearle advocated the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.57 Moreover, far from blocking two joint Israeli-Palestinian proposals for a Permanent Status Agreement (which involved very extensive Israeli compromises, including withdrawal from the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza) that were strongly opposed by the Sharon government as claimed by Halper and Clarke,58 Wolfowitz expressed positive views about them. Indeed, Wolfowitz and Abrams met with some of the Israelis and Palestinians who were behind these initiatives in the face of the Sharon government’s strong objections.
Subsequently, President Bush himself termed the Geneva Plan, advocated by many Israeli doves and some important Palestinians, “productive”.59 Nor were such attitudes only expressed regarding theoretical plans. Elliot Abrams was very active in pressing Sharon to limit settlement growth, arguing that Israel would eventually have to withdraw from the vast majority of the settlements. Indeed, Abrams played a major role in getting Sharon to include four settlements in the West Bank in his unilateral disengagement plan, which was originally confined to Gaza.60
Third, only a few members of the Likud, former Prime Minister Netanyahu, former Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, genuinely share an ideological affinity with the “democratic imperialist” ideology of the neoconservatives.61 Sharansky’s book, The Case for Democracy, is apparently beloved by George W. Bush. However, Sharon was not impressed, telling Sharansky, “I understand that in the Soviet Union your ideas were important, but unfortunately they have no place in the Middle East.”62
Neoconservatism and the Administration of George W. Bush
Second, the bureaucratic control of the neoconservatives over policy has been exaggerated. While the assertive nationalists were represented in the top tier of government, the neoconservatives, such as Wolfowitz, Abrams, Feith, and Richard Pearle, were confined to the second tier. Without the support of their superiors they could not determine policy. This was evident prior to 9/11 as the Bush administration disappointed neoconservatives with its relatively moderate polices towards China, Russia, and Iraq.64
In addition, the fact that Bush did not give the State Department a key role in decision-making was hardly revolutionary. In fact it was characteristic of a trend in U. S. foreign policy, one that characterised, for example, both the Kennedy administration and the first Nixon administration.65
Third, it is true that after 9/11 President Bush’s rhetoric became more neoconservative, with more emphasis on democratization. However, in practice the administration proved willing to drop sanctions against Colonel Gaddafi’s non-democratic regime in Libya once it surrendered its WMD program. Nor has the administration aggressively pursued democratic reform in Saudi Arabia.66 With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian arena, when the Road Map was launched in the spring of 2003, the main U. S. condition for advancing to political negotiations was not democratization, as per neoconservative demands, but that Abu Mazen first reform and unify command over the many Palestinian security services.67
Even with regard to Iraq war, the democratization agenda was not the main cause of policy. In contrast to the neoconservatives who had advocated regime change in Iraq for many years, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice only became supporters of a war in Iraq as a result of a new perception of the strategic threat to the U. S. in the wake of 9/11, not as a matter of ideological principle.68
Thus it was the assessment of the director of the CIA, George Tenet (a Clinton appointee), of the potential threat from Iraq in the wake of 9/11 that had a major impact on the views of Bush and Cheney regarding the value of a preventative war against Iraq.69 As Rumsfeld admitted in congressional testimony on 9 July 2003, ‘the coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass murder. We acted because we saw the evidence in a new light, through the prism of our experience on September 11th.’70
Moreover, as John Lewis Gaddis has demonstrated, the Bush administration’s reaction was hardly unprecedented. Surprise attacks on the U. S. in the past have caused the reshaping of strategy, including a switch to a preference for regional hegemony, unilateralism and even pre-emption—all in the absence of neoconservatism. 71
As for the claim that the main objective of the Iraq war was to enhance Israeli security, as far as the Israelis were concerned Iran and not Iraq was the main threat. Consequently, Iran and to a lesser extent Syria, not Iraq, were the main regional strategic issues that Israel raised in discussions with the United States. While some members of the Israeli government and security establishment thought that a byproduct of a U. S. attack on Iraq might benefit Israeli security, others thought that Israel’s position might actually worsen, as Iran would be able to take advantage of the situation.72
The Primacy of Strategic Interests and External Politics in George W. Bush’s Policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
The Administration’s Level of Involvement in the Peace Process
With Arafat and the new Israeli leadership both rejecting the Clinton parameters, with the respective publics unripe for compromise and against the background of rising violence, the administration was united behind a policy that lowered the U. S. profile in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making.74 Instead, Bush focused on the core U. S. interest: conflict management, the prevention of a region-wide escalation. To this end, Washington remained significantly engaged with Israeli-Palestinian situation of the next couple of years, sending numerous envoys whose core objective was to try and calm the situation down. For most of that time, however, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track was not a priority for an administration that was more concerned with combating radical anti-Western forces in the region directly, be they in the form of al-Qaida in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program or Syrian75 support for terrorism, its occupation of Lebanon and its support for anti-U. S. forces in Iraq. Only when the parties themselves undertook initiatives that appeared to hold some promise of political progress, did the administration seriously try to focus its diplomatic efforts to forwarding that goal.
In May 2001 in the wake of the publication of the Mitchell Report, Ambassador William Burns was dispatched to the region to try and establish a “time-line” for its implementation. Bush later sent CIA Director George Tenet and then Powell to the Middle East to help try and enforce fragile the cease-fire that was achieved, but without success.
After 9/11, the administration focused its efforts on the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the meantime, Bush sent General Anthony Zinni to try to implement the Tenet Plan for de-escalation of the violence, which was conceived of as a pathway to implementing the Mitchell Report. Zinni visited the region twice between November 2001 and March 2002. None of these efforts to secure a ceasefire succeeded and following an escalation in terrorist attacks Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, a large-scale operation inside the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank.
The failure of the administration to get the sides to agree to a sustained ceasefire was not a result of domestic constraints on pressuring Israel, but rather a function of the administration’s assessment as to its strategic priorities in the Middle East. For as long as the violence remained local, the administration lacked a major interest in snuffing it out. Some in the administration also believed that allowing Israel to militarily defeat terrorism would bring the Palestinians to give up terrorism as counter-productive.
Nonetheless, the administration was prepared to pressure Israel to prevent the escalation of the violence. Bush therefore vetoed Sharon’s proposal to assassinate Arafat, fearing the consequences inside the PA, for the stability of the region, and for U. S. relations with its Arab allies. For the same reason, on 4 April 2002 President Bush called for Israel to withdraw from the cities they had entered, a call that Israel adhered to. Subsequently, Powell and Tenet were sent to negotiate a cease-fire, which once again failed to hold.
By this stage, the administration was convinced that Arafat’s leadership was a major cause of the on-going violence, Bush called for Arafat’s removal from power as a precondition to U. S. support for progress towards a Palestinian state. In the interim, the U. S. focused its efforts on the war in Iraq, only returning to officially launch the Road Map in Spring 2003 when Saddam had been removed from office.76 At this juncture there was renewed optimism that a diplomatic breakthrough might be possible when the leading Palestinian moderate, Abu Mazen[,] was appointed prime minister.
This occasioned the administration to greatly step up its involvement in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, symbolized by the president’s visit to the Middle East and his involvement in a summit meeting with Sharon and Abu Mazen at Aqaba. This time a ceasefire was achieved. Soon afterward, the ceasefire collapsed and Abu Mazen resigned, having failed to wrest control from Arafat. Without a willing and able partner on the Palestinian side, the Bush administration deemphasized a return to substantive Israel-Palestinian negotiations.77
Then in December 2003, Sharon launched his unilateral disengagement plan. While Arafat was in charge, the Washington allowed Israel to adopt a very aggressive policy towards the Hamas leadership, in order to help prevent a Hamas takeover of Gaza and to ensure the withdrawal was not viewed as a victory for terrorism.78 At the same time, the administration became involved in coordinating the disengagement plan with Israel, in an attempt to turn it into a move conducive to enhancing the prospects for the future creation of a viable Palestinian state in the context of a negotiated agreement further down the line.79
In the economic sphere, it brought the World Bank into discussions, while in the political sphere; the United States obtained the backing of the Quartet for the plan within the context of Road Map. The administration then intensified its involvement when, following the death of Yasir Arafat, Abu Mazen was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in January 2005.
In particular, the administration sought to turn Sharon’s unilateral plan into one fully coordinated withdrawal with the PA. To this end the administration reinserted itself into Israeli-Palestinian security relations by reinstating the CIA role in trilateral security co-operation. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rice appointed a special envoy, General Ward, to assist the Palestinians with security reforms and determine whether or not the Palestinians have fulfilled their obligation under the first stage of the Road Map. Ward’s role was expanded to include mediation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.80
The Administration’s Support for Israeli Policy
To begin with, despite the supposed ideological affinity, the administration was not enthusiastic about the election of Likud leader Ariel Sharon as prime minister in Israel, given his terrible record of relations with the U. S. and his long-standing support for settlements.81 Indeed, during its first year in office the administration did not adopt a markedly pro-Israel policy. In a meeting in Ausgust 2001, Bush made it very clear to Sharon that he was opposed to Sharon’s intensification of military action.82
Indeed, there was heavy pressure on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas following incursions, including the withholding of aid and an embargo on certain items of military hardware in response to Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations.83 Meanwhile, the State Department’s annual terrorist report did not brand the PA as a terrorist organization, despite pressure from Congress, the pro-Israel lobby, and the Sharon government.84Furthermore, in the summer 2001 Bush wrote a private letter to Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state and promising to meet Yasir Arafat personally. Powell then prepared a major policy speech that would endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state within three years to be defended by an international force, which was to be coupled with a meeting between Bush and Arafat at the UN. However the initiative was placed on a backburner in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.85
The events on 9/11 refocused U. S. strategic priorities such that the cocktail of political radicalism and terrorism in the Middle East came to be viewed as a major strategic threat to the United States. Despite this shift in focus, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the previous orientation in American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was reinforced, as Bush wanted widespread Arab support for his coalition against al-Qaida. This resulted in Bush becoming the first U. S. president to officially endorse a Palestinian State.
Bush also applied great pressure on Sharon; forcing him into a cease-fire and into allowing Arafat to meet Foreign Minister Peres, while refusing to put Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the official U. S. list of terrorist organisations. Against this background, Sharon compared Bush’s policy towards Israel to Chamberlain’s policy at Munich.86 With the need to build international support for the war against Afghanistan, especially among Muslim countries, the administration’s sympathy for Israel was subordinated to its broader strategic interests with regard to the war against terror.
Subsequently, in March 2002, in an effort to back-up Zinni’s efforts to achieve a ceasefire, Washington pushed through UN Security Council Resolution 1397, (the first since the original 1947 partition plan) which expressly called for the creation of a Palestinian state to be created alongside Israel.
After 9/11 the administration became increasingly concerned that if terrorism against Israel was allowed to yield political dividends it would encourage other terrorists groups because they would draw the lesson that all Western societies could be manipulated by terrorism.
Nonetheless, the fact that Bush had declared a war against terror did not mean that the Palestinians were automatically on the wrong side, despite their extensive use of terrorism against Israeli civilians. Still, the Bush administration made a clear distinction between al-Qaida and the Palestinians in that it recognized that in the case of the Palestinians there existed a potential political solution that was in the U. S. interest. In this regard, Bush distinguished between legitimate Palestinian aspirations such as statehood and their illegitimate actions—terrorism. The administration gave Arafat and the PA a chance to be on America’s side in the war against terror, and they offered a political reward if the Palestinians were forthcoming. As Bush declared at the UN in November 2001, “We are working for the day when two states—Israel and Palestine—live peacefully together within secure and recognized boundaries.…Peace will come when all have sworn off forever incitement, violence and terror. There is no such thing as a good terrorist.”87 To reiterate the point Condoleezza Rice explained, “You cannot help us with al-Qaida, and hug Hizballah or Hamas.”88
Arafat’s big mistake was his failure to understand that the price for U. S. support was not simply verbal renunciation of al-Qaida but firm action against Palestinian terrorism. In the six months following 9/11, President Bush’s envoy, General Anthony Zinni, visited the Middle East twice in order to try and secure a ceasefire. On the first occasion, Arafat belatedly declared a truce, but he made no attempt to bring about a lasting end to the violence and consequently, the truce was broken almost immediately by Hamas, generating strong Israeli retaliation. After three weeks it was clear that the mission had failed.
On Zinni’s return to the region in early 2002, he was once again greeted by a massive escalation of terror attacks, as 137 Israelis died within a month, and the mission collapsed. Subsequently, Zinni referred to Arafat as a ‘liar’ and ‘mafia boss’, while Bush took Arafat’s failure to act, as a blow to presidential.89
Not only did Arafat fail to take action to prevent terrorism, members of his personal entourage were personally involved in it. The event that, more than anything else, shifted U. S. policy decisively against Arafat was theKarine A affair. In January 2002, Israel intercepted a ship carrying fifty tons of arms from Iran to the PA, including C-4 explosives and katyusha rockets – clearly weapons of terrorism. Arafat wrote to Bush denying PA involvement, but intelligence material provided incontrovertible evidence of very high-level official PA involvement in this affair and later on Arafat’s direct financial support for terrorist groups. By lying, Arafat lost all credibility with the president.
After 9/11, Bush had declared that all countries in the world had to decide whether they sided with the United States or with the “axis of evil,.” By sponsoring terrorism and allying with Iran, Arafat was seen by the White House as having made his choice.90
Israel launched operation ‘Defensive Shield’ which included an attack on Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and a major IDF sweep into the major Palestinian cities of the West Bank. Bush was very understanding of the operation and highly critical of Arafat and the PA, which he said “encouraged rather than prevented terror.”91Having defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, the administration was less constrained by the need for support in Muslim countries. There was also a sense that to restrain Israel after the U. S. war in Afghanistan was not only hypocritical, but could also set a precedent which would constrain future U. S. military operations against terrorists in the future. In June 2002, Bush made a major policy speech, in which he publicly called on the Palestinians to choose a new leader and which made a future Palestinian state conditional on active PA opposition to terrorism.92 Simultaneously, the CIA echoed Bush’s contention that Arafat was a major obstacle to peace.93
Against this background, when Palestinian moderate Abu Mazen became prime minister in Spring 2003, the administration’s desire to assist him and make diplomatic progress led Bush to adopt positions that clashed with those of the Sharon government. First, the administration aimed at diplomatic progress within the framework of the “Road Map.” The administration had originally agreed to adopt the “Road Map” within the multilateral setting of the “Quartet’\” (UN, EU, U. S. and Russia) in order to gain international support for the war against Iraq. The “Road Map” effectively replaced the president’s June 2002 speech as the key reference point in this context. It was more favorable to the Palestinians than the president’s original speech. Furthermore, whereas the Israelis wanted any political concessions to follow a complete Palestinian crackdown on terrorism, Bush supported acts in parallel. Bush was also critical of Israeli military and settlement policies as damaging Abu Mazen and he pressured Sharon to change his meagre approach.94
Abu Mazen eventually succeeded in securing a formal ninety-day truce from the various Palestinian factions, which led to a wider Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. He never gained control over the situation, however. During the two months when the ‘hudna’ was in place the IDF thwarted fifty-seven attempted terrorist attacks.95 On 19 August a suicide bombing in Jerusalem killed twenty-three Israelis, wounding a further 130, signalling the end of the cease-fire. On August 21, Powell publicly called upon Chairman Arafat to make available to Prime Minister Abbas those security elements that were under his control so as to allow progress to be made on the Road Map.96Subsequently, Abu Mazen resigned and the administration’s hope for diplomatic progress evaporated. While, Sharon could have offered more to help Abu Mazen, ultimately Abu Mazen’s failure was primarily a function of internal Palestinian politics: his inability to wrest effective control of the security services from Arafat and his cronies. Consequently, Sharon was not viewed by the administration as the main cause of failure.97
Arafat’s disregard for U. S. interests was the main reason why the administration shifted its position to strong support for Israel. But another factor that helped shift U. S. policy was Sharon’s approach to the United States. Despite his previous record of defying the Washington, Sharon succeeded in building up credibility with the administration by being generally sensitive to U. S. priorities. In response to the Mitchell Report in May 2001, Sharon ordered a unilateral cease-fire. Subsequently, Israel did not respond when a Palestinian suicide terrorist murdered twenty-one Israeli teenagers in Tel Aviv. Again in December 2001, just prior to Zinni visit, Sharon gave-up on his demand of seven days of no violence as a pre-requisite for negotiations. Given Sharon’s record since the 1950s as perhaps Israel’s most vocal proponent and exponent of a tough retaliation policy, these gestures were all the more significant.
On the potentially most troublesome political issue, settlements, relations were more strained, but even here Sharon adopted a markedly more moderate policy than the 1990-92 Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir which had refused to freeze settlement activity as demanded by the administration of George Bush the Elder. Again, this policy was all the more remarkable as Sharon was probably the Israeli politician who had contributed most to the expansion of Jewish settlements.
In contrast to Shamir and Netanyahu, Sharon declared that he was prepared to accept the establishment of a Palestinian State, in conformity with U. S. policy. In addition, by accepting the Mitchell Plan, he formally agreed to severe limitations on settlement activity and by accepting the Road Map he agreed to dismantle all illegal settlement outposts established since he came into office. Following the resignation of Abu Mazen, Sharon’s failure to live up to his commitments regarding settlements threatened to become a major source of tension in the U. S. -Israeli relationship.99 The main reason it did not do so was that in December, Sharon announced his unilateral disengagement plan, which he promised to co-ordinate with Washington.100 To begin with, the hawks in the administration opposed the plan, fearing that it would have negative repercussions in Iraq, encouraging terrorism against U. S. forces.101 The administration ultimately embraced the idea, as the dismantling of settlements represented a concrete step towards the creation of a viable Palestinian state envisaged in the Road Map.102 Recognizing that the disengagement plan embroiled Sharon in a massive and potentially explosive the confrontation with the settlers, Washington did not press Sharon publicly in the interim regarding the illegal outposts in the West Bank.103
Instead, the administration signalled its support publicly in a joint press conference and an exchange of letters between the Bush and Sharon.104 This support was very important in helping Sharon overcome substantial opposition within the Cabinet. Critics of the administration claim that in these exchanges the U. S. adopted an unprecedented pro-Israel position by stating that any permanent status agreement should not include a ‘right of return’ for Palestinians to Israel and that such an agreement should take into account the reality of Israeli settlement blocs. Bush’s statement was very close in substance to the terms for a settlement put forward by President Clinton in December 2001. Moreover, Bush’s statement also mentioned that any settlement was dependent on an agreement resulting from negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.105 Even more explicitly, after meeting Abu Mazen in Washington in 2005, Bush declared that, ‘Changes to the 1949 armistice lines must be mutually agreed.’106Furthermore, the administration took other significant measures regarding settlements designed to keep open the future possibility of conflict resolution on the basis of the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. First, they convinced Sharon to include within the disengagement plan, not only a withdrawal from all the settlements in Gaza, but also from an additional four settlements in the West Bank.107 This was important in that it demonstrated that a Palestinian state would not be confined to Gaza.
Second, in return for the Bush letter, the Sharon government made alterations in the route of the security barrier that separates Israel from Palestinians in the West Bank that brought it closer to the Green Line. Nor was this the first time that the administration had successfully pressured the Sharon government to significantly alter the route of the barrier.
Following U. S. prompting Sharon had dropped the idea of building a fence to enclose the whole Jordan Valley. Had the Jordan Valley been included, nearly 40% of the West Bank would have been on the Israeli side of the fence.108 Instead, it will now incorporate between 6-13% of the West Bank.109
Third, in the exchange of letters Israel committed to take concentrated steps within certain time limits regarding the dismantling of illegal settlement outposts and the freezing of settlements’ geographical expansion. Sharon claimed that the letter permitted Israel to build within the main settlement blocs, but Bush has clearly stated his opposition to this interpretation, and has stepped up efforts to combat this.110 This has effectively led Israel to produce an official report detailing the role of the government in funneling funds to illegal settlement outposts. Subsequently, much settlement activity has been frozen.111
Finally, following the death of Arafat, the administration has actively tried to support Abu Mazen. U. S. influence was an important factor in Sharon permitting Palestinian residents of East JerU. S. alem to participate in the Palestinian leadership elections in January 2005.112 The administration’s then tried to bolster Abu Mazen by referring to him as ‘president’, whereas Arafat was only referred to as ‘Chairman’.113 Following the election, the administration promised the PA $350 million in aid and Abu Mazen was invited to visit Bush in Washington in May 2005, a meeting that the Palestinians found very satisfying.114 Most importantly the U. S. insisted that Israel coordinate its withdrawal from Gaza with the PA.
Against this background and having established that Israel and the Palestinians were not ripe for conflict resolution, U. S. policy focus ed on its core interest – conflict management. . Yet when the parties did generate opportunities for diplomatic progress that fitted in with wider U. S. interests in the region, the administration became involved in trying to further matters within the framework of the Road Map. Furthermore, the administration worked to protect the conditions for future conflict resolution by successfully pU. S. hing Israel to significantly alter the route of the separation barrier and thU. S. preserve the vision of a viable Palestinian state.
The pro-Israel trend in U. S. policy was primarily a function of the policies adopted by protagonists. While Sharon went out of his way to consult and accommodate Washington, a complete reversal of his behaviour prior to becoming Prime Minister, Arafat succeeded in destroying the excellent relations he had built up in Washington 1996-2000 by completely miscalculating the effect of his continued support for terrorism in the wake of 9/11. Arafat’s support for terrorism and his involvement with Iran, made Palestinian policy contradict the U. S. interest in stabilising the conflict, as well as threatening wider U. S. interests in the region. Yet, when Abu Mazen became Palestinian leader, the administration proved willing to support him in some ways that were opposed by the Sharon government.
There is every indication that the Bush administration’s underlying strategic focus in the Middle East will not change. Iran and Iraq will be of central concern. Bush views terrorism and the proliferation of WMD as the greatest threat. He went to war in Iraq to prevent the transfer of Iraqi WMD to terrorist organizations. He has a similar concern about Iran. Unless, Syria changes its overall policy in towards terrorism, Iraq and Lebanon, the administration is highly unlikely to promote negotiations between Syria and Israel.115
Meanwhile, given the overall strategic approach of the administration, and given the wide gap between the positions of Israel and the Palestinians on core issues, Bush is highly unlikely to invest a serious effort in reaching a permanent status agreement, even if the PA successfully reforms itself. Instead, he has spoken of his desire to see a Palestinian State come into being by the end of his term of office in 2009. This implies reaching the second stage of the Road Map—an interim arrangement, though Bush has conditioned this on thoroughgoing Palestinian reforms.116
Once Israel completes the Disengagement plan, a clash might develop on a number of issues, first and foremost the Road Map. Whereas, Israel has demanded the disarmament of all terrorist factions as a pre-requisite for political negotiations, the Bush administration has emphasized the unification of Palestinian security services as the prerequisite to negotiations, as it did in 2003.117 There could also be a clash regarding the dismantling illegal outposts and to settlements more generally, if Sharon does not live up to the commitments he made to Bush in the past.
In other words, future policy is likely to be determined not only by the strategic priorities of the administration, but also by the policies adopted by the protagonists towards each other and towards wider U. S. interests in the Middle East.
Dr Jonathan Rynhold is a reseach associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. His publications include Israel at the Polls 2003 (London: Routledge-Curzon, 2005), co-edited with S. Sandler & B. Mollov.