Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The New Washington

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By Amotz Asa-El

In the corridors of the White House: US President Bush with (from top) members of the Iraq Study Group, new Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert

The American political pendulum has swung again, this time depriving the Republicans of their majority in both houses, and casting a shadow over George W. Bush’s Middle East policy, arguably the hallmark of his increasingly embattled presidency.

On the face of it, this is bad news for Israel, considering the understanding and support it enjoyed from the neoconservative circle that in part inspired the Bush administration’s Middle East focus. Yet if Israel now stands to lose political sympathy in the US it is probably less because of the Democrats’ gains in America and more because of the Republicans’ perceived setbacks in the Middle East.

Rather than bury Israeli interests under them, Capitol Hill’s shifting sands have themselves been blown by winds that originated well before the recent elections. It is those winds that are already now challenging Israel, both diplomatically and strategically, and would have done so regardless of the American legislature’s composition.

Aside from the fact that Congress has little impact on foreign policy, which is generally forged by the White House and State Department, Washington’s new legislative configuration is no setback for Israel.

While some Republicans lost seats as part of an anti-war mood, the chief strategists of the Democratic victory were two of the most pro-Israeli and openly Jewish US politicians - Senator Charles Schumer, whose constituency includes New York’s Jewish community, and Congressman Rahm Emanuel, whose father is Israeli. Similarly, new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a longtime and unequivocal supporter of Israel, and Senator Joe Lieberman defied the anti-war sentiment by defeating handily the war opponent who the Democrats had chosen instead of him as their Senatorial candidate in Connecticut.

Moreover, there is no indication that the anti-war electorate associates America’s Iraqi situation with Israel. It is against this backdrop that some of the Israeli press criticised Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s pronouncement, after visiting President Bush in the White House, that the world should thank America for what it has done in Iraq. Some in Israel feared that his statement might anger Democrats or be seen as substantiating theories that Israel played a major part in formulating America’s Iraq policy.

In fact, of course, no historian will be able to argue that what triggered America’s invasion of Iraq was anything other than the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. What is less clear is how Iraq was turned into such a focus of America’s response to its own victimisation, and how Bush emerged with a diplomatic focus of Mideast reform. That foreign policy, dominated by a quest to democratise the Arab world, has come to be seen by many American opinion makers as unrealistic.

 

It looks probable that Bush’s immediate circle is also about to stage at least a partial retreat from this thinking, considering the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his replacement by Robert Gates and the return to the scene of former Secretary of State James Baker.

Baker’s return, through the Iraq Study Group which he co-chairs with veteran Democrat Lee Hamilton, was initiated by Bush himself to provide the White House with a revised Middle East policy.

For his part, Baker represents the old Republican school that was cool to Israel, attentive to the oil-rich Arab countries, and suspicious of diplomatic idealism. It is this change of Republican stripes, rather than the Democratic restoration, that is making some fear that Israel’s solid support in Washington may now be weakened. The visibly warm relationship that Ariel Sharon developed with Bush, Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, may, it is feared by some in Israel, be fading.

Olmert, himself an affable, outgoing man, may find that the chemistry he has established with Bush and Rice does not endure with at least some of the new figures who will soon start playing important roles in reshaping American policy in the Middle East.

Historically, there indeed has been a strange reversal of roles between the Democrats and Republicans in recent years.

The late Simcha Dinitz, who served as Golda Meir’s ambassador to Washington, once observed that the Democrats tended to be more idealistic in their foreign policies, while the Republicans were more “strategic,” in that they cared less about how a foreign regime behaved with its own citizens as long as it harmonised with US foreign policy goals. Thus, Democrats Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter sought, respectively, to democratise Central Europe in 1919 and humanise the Iranian Shah’s treatment of Islamist dissidents in 1978, while Republican Richard Nixon established ties with communist China and Ronald Reagan tolerated Latin American authoritarianism.

However, during the past half decade, it was Bush the Republican who played the idealist, with his quest to emancipate the Middle East, while the Democrats played the realists, questioning the Bush policy’s feasibility. Now, with James Baker seeking dialogue with Syria, and with Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates hailing from the historic circle of Republican realists, many Israeli diplomats are concerned they may see a restoration of the George Herbert Walker Bush Middle East policy, whose crowning achievement was the 1991 Madrid Conference.

Israelis who were involved in that ground-breaking event, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir sat at the same table with representatives of most major Arab governments, recall it with mixed feelings. On the one had, it was largely imposed on Israel by Bush and Baker, but on the other hand it was reasonably measured, and didn’t directly produce any territorial concessions.

Now, many expect that Bush the son, in response to what is perceived as an anti-war vote, will follow the advice of Baker and Gates, who could seek to drive a wedge between Damascus and Teheran by imposing on Israel a deal of some sort with the virulently anti-Israeli Bashar Assad.

While logical, such a scenario assumes that Baker et al have themselves not been influenced by what transpired since they last roamed the corridors of power, from the Oslo Accords and the 9/11 attacks, to the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas, and the nuclearisation of North Korea.

Israel is currently led not by Yitzhak Shamir, who generally rejected any territorial concessions, but by Ehud Olmert, who was elected on a massive-withdrawal ticket, following two unilateral Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, that not only failed to create a peace momentum, but in fact were followed by attacks across Israel’s internationally recognised borders. Gates and Baker will have to bear all this in mind should they prod Israel to make gestures to Assad in the Golan Heights, or press for concessions on the Palestinian front.

Similarly, some tend to forget that in Israel there was considerable scepticism concerning the current administration’s attitude toward the Arab world. As residents of the Middle East, some Israeli experts suspected that with all its might, America’s attempt to democratise from above might fail the way Israel’s similar effort in Lebanon, in 1982, eventually did.

Now, the general feeling among Israeli experts is that freedom will arrive in the Middle East as a result of pressures from below, which in turn will take years to brew. In the meantime, the West must focus on seeking pragmatic, secular interlocutors who will confront Islamism and encourage prosperity and incremental liberalisation.

Moreover, no one in post-midterm Washington, from Gates to Pelosi, disagrees with the Israeli assessment that the fundamental problems of the region remain Iran’s religious fanaticism and nuclear ambitions, and its alliance with Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.

From an Israeli viewpoint, the root of this challenge, including the summer’s skirmish in Lebanon and the current artillery exchanges between Gaza and Sderot, all lie in Teheran, whether as a source of inspiration, arms or experts. The Islamic Republic has become Israel’s number one strategic enemy and concern, and its threat to the future of the Jewish people has just been compared to Nazi Germany’s by both by Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s main question as it observes the Washington transformation is thus how it will now deal with Iran. This is also what dominated the Bush-Olmert meeting, after which the former implied he would understand Israel if it attacked Iran. It was clear even in the previous Washington configuration that Bush was not hurrying to attack Iran, but was intent on confining US policy to creating a consensus for sanctions for the time being. But it was less clear if a military step was ultimately on the cards if that failed. It is likely Republicans will be even more wary of such a step today, given the political negative the war in Iraq has become for them. Will the post-election Bush Administration strive to engage Iran diplomatically, as many believe Baker thinks it should? Things are thus even more uncertain.

No one in Jerusalem has firm answers to these questions. As the Democrats prepare to take their new positions on the Hill, Israeli leaders are waiting to see just how Washington’s new Republicans will respond, and to what extent they will seek Israeli concessions as part of a broader effort to quell the current violence in the Middle East.

Amid all this fog, one thing is clear in Israel: half-a-decade after the US adopted what some in Israel saw as a utopian policy of regional transformation, utopia has yet to arrive in the Middle East.