Commentary Magazine


Bush and Sharon

To the Editor:

In “Does the U.S. Finally Understand Israel?” [July-August], Michael B. Oren deftly describes how the State Department’s view of Israel as an “obstacle to peace” in the Middle East has perversely affected both Arab expectations and the approach to the region taken by successive U.S. Presidents. Mr. Oren contends that American understanding of Israel’s plight has improved, due in no small measure to abiding support for Israel in Congress, but he remains concerned about the sharp swings in U.S. Middle East policy since September 11. What are the chances, he asks, that “George W. Bush and his team will think afresh about the tortuous history of U.S. policy, and will embark on a new and less ambivalent course”?

Such a course, I would suggest, is already being pursued. Mr. Oren notes that the events of September 11 produced a new clarity in Washington concerning who America’s friends and foes are, as well as a new respect for Israel’s long-standing policy of military preemption. But he makes no mention of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s thunderbolt of a speech on October 4, 2001, which seems to have registered deeply with President Bush. Sharon declared that Israel would not tolerate being treated as Czechoslovakia was in 1938, and that it would defend itself by whatever means necessary. This was interpreted by many as a slap at Bush, but a more accurate interpretation is that the prime minister wanted to alert the U.S. to the imminent danger of the State Department’s appeasing tilt toward the terrorist perpetrators.

Sharon’s speech, I believe, helped the President break free of the idea that the U.S. must preserve its Middle East “coalition” at all costs. Within the month, the State Department characterized Hamas, Hizbullah, and Islamic Jihad as global terrorist organizations. And notwithstanding Bush’s apparent impatience with the Israeli incursion into Jenin following the Passover massacre in Netanya, he gave a stunningly affirmative answer to Oren’s question—does the U.S. finally understand Israel?—in his much-anticipated speech of June 26. Though widely expected to revert to the State Department’s preference for a Palestinian state without preconditions, he declared that American support depended on the election of a Palestinian leadership that would renounce terror. Bush brilliantly recognized the essence of Israel’s situation: no peaceful coexistence is possible when one party maintains the aim of destroying the other.

Michael Balch
Iowa City, Iowa

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Michael B. Oren writes:

My article, written several weeks before President Bush’s historic June 26 speech on the Middle East, questioned whether the Bush administration would depart from longstanding U.S. policies toward Israel, and Michael Balch is right in pointing out that indeed the President has done so. He is also correct in noting the impact—overlooked by me—of Ariel Sharon’s remarks of last October.

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