Commentary Magazine


Bush, Sharon, My Daughter, and Me

Jerusalem: Monday, January 31, 2005

“Who are you?” my daughter Ruthie Blum demands as she greets me in the lobby of the King David hotel, “and what have you done with my father?” I laugh appreciatively at this newest twist on her antic idea that I have been invaded by aliens—an idea that first began taking shape about fourteen months ago, during my last visit to Israel, where she has been living for about 27 years now. And thereby hangs a long and complicated tale.

In late 2003, seizing as usual on a chance to see her and my four Israeli grandchildren, I had accepted an invitation to the conference on security held every year under the auspices of the Herzliya Institute. Though this was only the fourth such annual conference, it had by then developed into a major Israeli institution. And because everyone who was anyone felt obligated to attend, it had also increasingly become the place in which the nation's political leaders preferred to issue their most important public pronouncements. Hence it was at this fourth annual Herzliya conference in December 2003 that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confirmed the rumors about his intention to put a “disengagement plan” into effect.

The plan had three components. The first was to accelerate construction of the security fence that had recently begun going up between “Israel proper” and the territories it had captured from Jordan on the West Bank in the Six-Day war of 1967. Already some 800 Israelis had been murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers who had infiltrated into the country from the West Bank, and the main (indeed, Sharon insisted, the only) purpose of the fence was to make it harder for these monstrous human missiles to do their grisly work.

The second component of the plan was to dismantle a number of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. “I know,” Sharon said, “you would like to hear names, but we should leave something for later.” All he would divulge for the moment was that the settlements to be “relocated” would be “those that will not be included in the territory of the state of Israel in any future agreement.” At the same time, however, he promised that Israel would “strengthen its control over those same areas in the land of Israel that will constitute an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future agreement.”

These formulations represented a reaffirmation of Sharon's acceptance of the “road map” implementing—or purporting to implement—George W. Bush's vision of (as Sharon now summarized it) “a democratic Palestinian state with territorial contiguity in Judea and Samaria and economic viability, which would conduct normal relations with Israel.”

By now, Sharon's acquiescence in the establishment of a Palestinian state raised not a single eyebrow. This was in stark contrast to the response when he had first come out in favor of the “two-state solution.” Then, there had been amazement all around. After all, Sharon had always been considered the most hard-line of Israeli hawks, and among the most determined opponents of Palestinian statehood. As a former general, he had opposed it on grounds of security—that is, because he believed that it would become a haven for terrorists and a launching pad for new military assaults on the Jewish state. But in addition to these considerations, he had also opposed it because, in his view, Israel had a solid claim on these territories.

Though not a religiously observant Jew, let alone an ultra-Orthodox one, Sharon often said (I heard him say it more than once with my own ears) that he was a Jew first and an Israeli second. It was, then, as a Jew that he always referred to the territories as Judea and Samaria, never as “the West Bank” and certainly never as “occupied.” For how could the very heartland of the biblical land of Israel be considered foreign to the present-day children of Israel? And it was both as a Jew and as a military man that, through the various ministerial offices he held in past governments, Sharon had done so much to increase the number and size of the Jewish settlements in those territories that he became known as the “father of the settler movement.”1 As he saw it, not only did Jews have an absolute right to live in Judea and Samaria, but by being placed along certain strategically located routes, they would form a protective barrier against invading armies.

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It was hard to say precisely when Sharon's conversion to the two-state solution occurred. But so far had he traveled from his old position that, shortly before the December 2003 Herzliya conference, he had even used the word “occupation” in speaking of the territories. There was, then, nothing new in Sharon's restatement at Herzliya of his commitment to the two-state solution.

There was, however, something very new indeed in the path he now laid out for getting there. The Palestinians, he said, had thus far failed to take the first step to which they had pledged themselves under the road map: namely, to “uproot the terrorist groups” and to “call a halt to incitement and violence.” On the contrary: “the terrorist organizations joined with Yasir Arafat and sabotaged the process with a series of the most brutal terror attacks we have ever known.”

This might well have been seized upon as a good and sufficient reason for Israel to renege on its own difficult obligations under the road map, which included withdrawal from a still unspecified swath of the “occupied” territories. And yet Sharon (who as a general had been famous for bold tactical surprises) went in precisely the opposite direction. Israel, he announced—and here was the third component of his disengagement plan—would not only stick by its commitments, but would do so even if the Palestinians were to persist in disregarding theirs. While he would still prefer “direct negotiations” with the Palestinian Authority (PA), if it continued “dragging its feet,” Israel would within a few months act unilaterally on the new disengagement plan.

Some days earlier, upon arriving at the 2003 Herzliya conference, I had been uncertain about the value of the security fence. People whose opinion I trusted doubted that it could stop, or even significantly reduce, terrorist attacks; others were confident that it would. There was also the question of whether its real purpose, despite Sharon's strong denial, was to draw the de-facto border between Israel and the future Palestinian state, and if so, whether the proposed route conceded too much or too little. About these issues, too, I was uncertain.

And then there was the problem I had with the road map. George W. Bush was the first American President to come out openly in favor of a Palestinian state. But after being stuck for a while in old habits of thought, he clearly came to the conclusion that it made no sense to add still another state to those harboring and sponsoring terrorism, precisely at a time when he was fighting to rid the world of such regimes. This led to the historic statement of June 24, 2002, in which Bush declared that the United States would not support the establishment of a Palestinian state unless and until new leaders emerged who would begin building “entirely new political and economic institutions, based on democracy, market economics, and action against terrorism.”

These conditions, like the Bush Doctrine out of which they logically flowed and of which they formed a part, constituted a rebuke to and a repudiation of the approach long favored by the foreign ministries and the foreign-policy establishments of virtually every country in the world, including the United States itself. At worst, the traditional approach had always been based on the demonstrably false premise that Israel was the main obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the war—both hot and cold—that had been waged against it by the Arab world from the moment the Jewish state was born in 1948; at best, the two parties were held (in the language of moral equivalence so dear to this mentality) to be equally responsible for “the cycle of violence.” But on June 24, 2002, Bush effected a major change of emphasis.

To be sure, he did “challenge Israel to . . . support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state” by freezing “settlement activity in the occupied territories,” by “permitting innocent Palestinians to resume work and normal life,” and by pulling its military forces out of areas heavily populated by Palestinians. But these demands were themselves made contingent upon Palestinian action against terrorism, and in any case they played a decidedly subordinate role to the imperative of Palestinian reforms “based on democracy, market economics, and action against terrorism.” By beginning with that imperative, and by devoting most of his speech to spelling it out, Bush for the first time placed the onus on the Palestinians rather than on the Israelis. Moreover, he refused to accept the inevitability, never mind the desirability, of a Palestinian state run by the arch terrorist and kleptocrat Arafat—or any other leader cast in the same mold.

Nor was that all. Instead of buying into the idea that the conflict in question was a struggle between Israel and the Palestinians alone—with Israel cast as Goliath and the Palestinians as David—Bush declared that the Palestinian people had for decades been “pawns” in a much wider war involving the whole of the Middle East and aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state. He therefore called on all the other states in the region to halt “the flow of money, equipment, and recruits to terrorist groups seeking the destruction of Israel—including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah.” Specifically, “the shipment of Iranian supplies to these groups” must be blocked, and “Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations.”

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All this had been sweet music to my ears. But a jarringly cacophonous note was sounded when the State Department took over the job of producing a blueprint that was supposed to put Bush's policy into practice; and to make matters worse, State then proceeded to join with the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia in what came to be designated in diplospeak as the Quartet. Had there, I wondered, ever been a better case of the fox being invited into the henhouse?

In due course the fox emerged from the henhouse with the road map—another diplospeak coinage—clenched between its teeth. According to a careful analysis of this document by David Makovsky and Robert Satloff, it represented not the fulfillment but “the antithesis of Bush's June 24 vision for peacemaking in terms of substance, sequence, and procedure.”2 This may have been going a bit too far; yet, leaving aside the technical details to which Makovsky and Satloff pointed, the very fact that the Quartet had no compunction about forging ahead even while Arafat remained in power certainly did conflict with Bush's vision.

Why, then, did Bush endorse the road map? The most plausible answer involved the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had been with him in his decision to invade Saddam Hussein's Iraq and who was still with him in the difficult effort to plant the seeds of democracy there now that Saddam was gone. Since Blair believed that nothing was more important than resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush had promised to repay his support on Iraq by devoting more attention to that conflict. Even so, was it really necessary for Bush to play along with the fiction that the new leadership he had called for had materialized in the person of a prime minister appointed and controlled by Arafat?

Here, I thought, the answer lay in what I had come to see as Bush's characteristic modus operandi. Thus, just as he had challenged the UN to enforce its own resolutions on Iraq; just as, far from “rushing into war,” as his opponents charged, he had waited many months before taking action without the blessing of the Security Council; and just as he would later do in backing the negotiations aimed at keeping Iran from developing and North Korea from deploying nuclear weapons—so in this instance he was giving his critics every chance to show that they could attain the goals they claimed to share with him by means other than the use of force, or at least without rocking every boat in sight.

It was because I had come to place so much faith in Bush that I was able to overcome my misgivings about the road map. And it was partly because Sharon was also putting his money on Bush that I was ready to bet on Sharon. Unlike most Israelis, Sharon seemed to understand that the Bush Doctrine was already changing the entire context in which the Arab/Muslim war against the Jewish state had always been waged, and that in this new context, there were things Israel could do that it would have been too risky to do before.

As Sharon spoke that night at the Herzliya conference, it was not yet clear that the disengagement plan would entail a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But so far as my daughter was concerned, the dismantling of any settlements whatsoever meant giving in to the terrorists, and it therefore clashed rather than dovetailed with the Bush Doctrine. There were those who objected to the disengagement plan mainly because of its unilateralism. But not Ruthie. Along with some of her political friends and allies on the Right, especially those who (unlike her) were religious, not even reciprocal concessions could justify throwing Jews out of the homes they had been encouraged to build by successive Israeli governments—and most of all by Sharon himself.

Ruthie took it for granted that I would be on her side, and so, I soon gathered, did other opponents of the disengagement plan whom I ran into during the breaks between sessions at the Herzliya conference. These were people who remembered me for my early and relentless criticism of the Oslo agreement. They were right: even before it was formally announced, I had laced into this rumored agreement in a lecture in Jerusalem, attacking its assumption that the Palestinians had given up their dream of wiping Israel off the map, and predicting that it would lead not to peace but to war. For the next seven years I would persist in this vein in my own writings, while also, as editor of COMMENTARY, opening the magazine's pages to the handful of intellectuals who had the stomach to endure being excoriated as enemies of peace. Then, when war finally came in the form of the second intifada launched by Arafat in September 2000 in response to an Israeli offer of statehood on 95 percent of the occupied territories, even many on the Israeli Left who had worshiped at the shrine of Oslo finally acknowledged that its viciously reviled critics had been right all along.

Having always been proud of me for playing this role, Ruthie was now amazed to discover that on the whole I supported Sharon's disengagement plan—more amazed even than she had been by Sharon himself for announcing it. No doubt explanations could be found for Sharon's turnabout, but there was simply no accounting for mine. Desperately searching for something, anything, that would explain it away, she hit upon a happy inspiration. Like the “pod people” in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I had been taken over by aliens who were using me to mouth opinions that her father—the real “pod(horetz)”—could not conceivably hold.

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The joke would prove to be a godsend, making it possible to avoid nasty arguments as, in the months ahead, the gap between us would widen with further adumbrations of Sharon's disengagement plan. Now here we are at the end of January 2005, and if at Herzliya Sharon had refused to specify which settlements he meant to uproot, by this point he is proposing to withdraw every last Israeli—some 8,000 in all—from the Gaza Strip, and to dismantle at least four settlements in Samaria.

By this point, too, Arafat has died and Mahmoud Abbas has been elected to succeed him as president of the Palestinian Authority. This is the same man who two years earlier served a brief and hapless term as prime minister under Arafat. Hastily embraced then by Sharon and Bush as the kind of new leader demanded by the President's June 24, 2002 statement, he turned out to be the instrument of yet another of Arafat's con games. Now Sharon is accepting him once more as a “partner for peace,” and there is even a photograph of the two of them shaking hands in a gesture that inevitably conjures up the image of Rabin and Arafat going through the same motion on the White House lawn the day the Oslo agreement was signed. No wonder Sharon seems to his opponents to be entering into Oslo II—though they also seem unable to decide whether this is better or worse than his unilateral “surrender to terrorism.”

As for the fence, it has proved a far greater success in cutting down on terrorist attacks than even its most enthusiastic proponents had expected. On the other hand, its proposed route has kept changing and its completion has repeatedly been delayed by rulings of a supreme court that makes even the most liberal members of our own Supreme Court look like strict constructionists and models of judicial restraint.

This is why Ruthie and other Israelis of her persuasion fear that the fence will wind up sitting on the insecure borders that enclosed Israel before 1967; that all of Judea and Samaria—and even East Jerusalem—will be handed over to the Palestinians; and that, because the whole world (including many Israelis) takes as axiomatic the Arab position that a Palestinian state must be judenrein, the roughly 240,000 Israelis currently living in Judea and Samaria, like the settlers in Gaza before them, will in their turn face the prospect of being dragged out of their homes by the Israeli army and packed off to “Israel proper.” If, she now says to me—her eyes ablaze with indignation—any such thing were to be done to Palestinians, or to anyone else, it would be called “transfer” or “ethnic cleansing” and condemned as a crime against humanity. But with Jews as the victims, it is being transmuted by a malignant political alchemy into nothing less than an act of justice.

Ruthie is absolutely certain that her father would have been the first to understand and protest against all this. But the aliens have invaded him, and the aliens have other ideas.

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Tuesday, February 1

On this occasion, I have come to Israel as part of a small group associated with the Hudson Institute. We are here to receive a series of “briefings,” mostly from the political Right, on the current state of affairs in the country, the first of which is being given today by A.3

Knowing that A. is a great admirer of Sharon, I am not surprised when he launches into a strong defense of the disengagement plan. But there are two unexpected wrinkles in his presentation.

One is his description of the pullout from Gaza as a “shortening” of Israel's defensive lines—not in the military but in the political sense. This formulation is new to me, though on reflection I realize that it does not differ all that much from how the new Palestinian leaders interpret the disengagement plan. Their take on it is that Sharon is withdrawing from Gaza only to get American permission for a “land grab” in the West Bank, and they cite the projected route of the fence as proof that Sharon intends to maintain control over anywhere from a third to a half of the occupied territories.

Be that as it may, to judge by everything I have been reading and hearing in recent months, A.'s description of the disengagement plan is not the usual argument Israelis make for it. As that argument goes, the only way Israel can remain democratic is to stop ruling over the Palestinians; and (because the Palestinians have a higher birthrate than the Israelis) the only way it can remain Jewish is to separate itself from them.

This line of thought originated on and was once largely confined to the Left. But no longer. The second intifada, and especially the horrific new weapon of suicide bombing that it introduced into the terrorist armory of the Palestinians, drove most Israelis to the despairing conclusion that there was simply no living with these people. As one participant at the 2003 Herzliya conference said to me in a private conversation: “Why should we keep trying to negotiate peace with people who want only to murder as many of us as they can? Instead of going on with this charade, the best thing we can do is cut ourselves off from them with the fence, and then let them stew in their own juices.”

He was putting the case more bluntly than most Israelis would have been comfortable with, but it seemed clear that this sentiment was very widely shared and that, more than any other factor, it lay behind the overwhelming degree of support then being expressed for Sharon's disengagement plan.

Today, however, it is equally clear that Sharon has much less support than he did fourteen months ago. Since then—with the death of Arafat, the election of Abbas as his replacement, and Sharon's decision to accept him as a “partner for peace”—the unilateralist component of the disengagement plan has been dropped and the “charade” of negotiations has been resumed. In tandem with these developments, second thoughts about the price and the risks of his plan have come into play. By now, opposition to Sharon from within his own ranks has hardened to the point where former supporters and admirers are certain that the Palestinians have him exactly wrong, and that, far from aiming for a “land grab” in Judea and Samaria, he intends to pull all the way back to the '67 borders.

Nevertheless, Sharon, who (to my great surprise) has turned out to be as brilliant a politician as he was a general, has managed by adroit tactical maneuvers to fend off the opposition bred by these second thoughts.

Having exhausted all the parliamentary means at their disposal, the opposition has now invested all its hopes in forcing a referendum on the pullout from Gaza—and it is in connection with this issue that I encounter the second unexpected wrinkle in A.'s briefing. Proponent of the disengagement plan though he is, A. thinks Sharon is wrong to resist holding a referendum. For one thing, he believes that Sharon would win it, and that this would silence the opposition and unite the nation behind him. And if he were to lose? A.'s answer is to shrug.

Whatever the merits of the debate over a referendum, I gather that the chances of holding one are very slim. At this stage, moreover, it is impossible to tell whether the pullout from Gaza will presage a large-scale evacuation of Judea and Samaria, or whether it will strengthen Israel's case for maintaining its hold over large chunks of those territories.

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Wednesday, February 2

Visiting a special facility set up by the police to monitor the Old City of Jerusalem and the area around the Temple Mount, I am reminded that the army is not the only instrument Israel has used in fighting the second intifada. With the help of cleverly located cameras, the police have been able to spot and catch a number of suicide bombers before they could blow themselves up. But I am also reminded of the amazing job the army has done under Sharon's direction.

Everyone said that terrorism could not be countered by military means, and that it could only be stopped by a political solution. But as is so often the case in such matters, everyone was wrong. Until June 24, 2002, Bush had not yet fully freed himself from the “cycle of violence” paradigm under which Israel's retaliatory strikes against terrorist attacks, and even such strictly defensive measures as checkpoints, were, and still are, equated with and even blamed for the attacks themselves.4 But once he realized that this way of looking at things clashed with his general attitude toward terrorism, Bush gave Sharon a tacit green light. No longer having to worry about jeopardizing his relations with the United States, Sharon was finally able to go all-out with the strategy he had hit upon: a combination of defense (the fence, which made it harder for suicide bombers to get through) and offense (targeted assassinations that decapitated the terrorist leadership, plus incursions into and sweeps of their strongholds).

So well did this strategy work that suicide bombing has by now been largely eliminated from the terrorist arsenal of the Palestinians. And even though there continues to be sporadic shelling of several towns and villages within range of the homemade Kassam rockets favored by Hamas, it does little damage. All in all, then, it can be said that the second intifada has been defeated.

If I had entertained any doubts about this, they would have been dispelled by the stroll we take with B. through the Old City after leaving the police station. Only a short while ago, he tells us, it would have been foolhardy for any Jew to walk these ancient streets, but today, as we can see for ourselves, there is not so much as a hint of menace in the air: no threatening posters, no hate-filled looks, nothing but beckoning smiles from the Arab shopkeepers in the densely crowded marketplace. They were, B. says, hit very hard by the loss of business they suffered as a result of the intifada, and they understandably long to see Israeli bargain-hunters and tourists from abroad streaming into the Old City once again.

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Thursday, February 3

C., another expert on the Palestinians who briefs us today, is less sympathetic toward them than B. seemed to be. Make no mistake, he warns us: Abbas and the others represent Arafatism without Arafat. The stubble may have been replaced by a clean shave and the kaffiyeh by a coat and tie, but Abbas himself is cut from the same cloth as the man he has replaced.

True, Abbas believes that terrorism has become counterproductive, and that the second intifada has ended in failure. But he does not oppose terrorism in principle, and he will not use force to disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or even the Al Aqsa Brigades associated with Fatah, the party of which (like Arafat before him) he himself is the head. In other words, he will not comply with the demand made both by Israel and the United States that he “dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism.”

This means that the latest cease-fire—whose terms include a pledge by Israel to refrain from any further targeted assassinations—will only give the terrorist groups a much-need breathing space. And as they exploit this welcome chance to rearm and regroup in preparation for their next systematic campaign, they can also resort to sporadic attacks whenever they feel that the “peace process” is going too well.5

Nor, C. goes remorselessly on, does Abbas's own willingness to observe a cease-fire and enter into negotiations with the Israelis signify that he is genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict. If nothing else, his continued insistence on the “right of return” flatly contradicts his professed commitment to the two-state solution. For if such a right were ever granted to the Palestinians, the demographic threat to the Jewish character of Israel would be impossible to fend off, and the end result would be not two states living side by side but a single state with a Palestinian majority.

Asked how the Palestinians see the disengagement plan, C. offers a smile that is simultaneously cynical and wan. Yes, he replies, Abbas and his colleagues do recognize that the second intifada failed in its objective—which was to disrupt Israeli society, demoralize its people, and cripple its economy. Nor do they credit the intifada with driving Sharon out of Gaza. But ordinary Palestinians are a different story. They have no doubt that Sharon's decision to get out of Gaza—exactly like the decision of his predecessor Ehud Barak to abandon the security zone Israel had established in Lebanon—is another proof that the shelling and bombing of Israeli civilians is the way to go.

But what about the Bush Doctrine? This time, C.'s smile is more cynical than wan. It is all very well, he says, to deliver pretty lectures to the Palestinians about democracy. But Bush is fooling himself if he thinks that the Palestinian people are any less opposed to the existence of Israel than their leaders are. C. does not deny that ordinary Palestinians have been repressed and oppressed by the thuggery and corruption of those leaders. And yet, after years of unremitting indoctrination by the textbooks they study in school, the newspapers they read, the television programs they watch, and the sermons they hear in the mosques, the Palestinians are so imbued with hatred of Israel, and of Jews everywhere, that most of them can hardly imagine living in peace with so great an evil.

Is there, then, no hope at all? Here, to my surprise, C. shies away from the logical conclusion to which his entire analysis points. Suddenly turning into an economic determinist, he allows that internal reform along the lines of Bush's June 24 statement might be possible, but only if it is made a precondition of any further financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Yet Bush now proposes to give the new crowd an immediate down payment of $350 million. In the absence of a stick, C. is sure that a goodly chunk of this carrot will wind up in the same Swiss banks as all the other millions before them. As for the rest, instead of being used to improve the lot of the Palestinian people, it will in all probability be spent on illegal arms.

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I agree with just about every word C. has uttered. I still see no evidence that “the Abu's”—as Ruthie sardonically mimics the post-Arafat leaders' swaggering preference for their noms de guerre as terrorists—have experienced a change of heart. Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his prime minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) were Arafat's loyal henchmen from the start. As such, they either acquiesced or played an active role in the long series of terrorist atrocities perpetrated by the PLO.

And why not? Far from having been punished for following this path, the PLO under Arafat achieved recognition by the “international community” as the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and was ultimately embraced even by Israel and the United States, both of whom had pledged never to deal with it. Even then, and even after Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he went on sponsoring terrorist attacks without losing any sympathy or support—not from the world at large; not from the United States (under the administration of Bill Clinton, he was invited to the White House more often than any other foreign leader); and not from Israel (under the Labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak, and, if reluctantly, under the Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu as well, he continued being treated as a “partner for peace”).

Things began to change only in 2001, when Sharon, deciding that enough was enough, refused to have anything further to do with Arafat, and finally penned him up in his compound in Ramallah. At first Bush had permitted himself to be influenced by the State Department's kneejerk disapproval of this move. But then the Israelis intercepted the Karine A, a ship trying—in violation of a cease-fire which had been brokered by an American envoy—to smuggle arms into the hands of the Palestinians. Questioned over the phone by Bush, Arafat claimed that he knew nothing about any such ship, and accused Israel of trumping up the incident as an excuse to break the cease-fire.

This was exactly the kind of con game Arafat had been playing with perfect success ever since assuming his new persona as a pursuer of peace. But like practically everyone else in the world, Arafat had “misunderestimated” George W. Bush. Not only did Bush refuse the sucker bait, but—aware of the overwhelming evidence proving that the Karine A had been a PA operation from start to finish, and disgusted by being told so blatant a lie in a one-on-one conversation—he now joined Sharon in refusing to have anything to do with Arafat.

It was the isolation of Arafat, combined with the launching of Sharon's new strategy and the green light Bush gave to it, that turned the tide against the second intifada. And as things grew worse for the Palestinians, Abbas and a number of other Arafat loyalists correlatively grew more and more convinced that the deliberate murder of Israeli civilians was losing its usefulness as a tactic and becoming both militarily and politically counterproductive.

I agree, then, with C. in doubting that there has been a real change of heart on the issue of terrorism among Arafat's successors. As for their embrace of the two-state solution, C.'s insistence that it is tactical rather than principled fits very well with my own take on the situation. Thus, I have long been convinced that the war against the Jewish state can only be ended by those who have been waging it since 1948, and that the Arab/Muslim world will make peace with Israel only after it makes peace with itself over the existence of a sovereign Jewish state in its midst, wherever its boundaries might be drawn. Until, that is, the day comes when the peoples of the greater Middle East, and their Muslim brethren elsewhere, can find it in their hearts to acknowledge the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own in the land of their forefathers, any peace treaty will amount to nothing more than a temporary cease-fire in an ongoing campaign to wipe Israel off the map.

At the same time, on the assumption that in the affairs of men nothing is forever, I could not rule out the possibility that this wondrous day might actually come. Which brings me to George W. Bush, and to where I disagree with C.

I have no great quarrel with him when he questions the wisdom of sending more money to the Palestinian Authority before Abbas has earned it by cracking down on the terrorists and taking serious steps toward democratization. But surely the money is only a gesture, and is in any event a trivial matter as compared with what Bush has done to the context in which the Palestinians are now forced to operate. Under the Bush Doctrine, terrorist acts are no less evil when committed by Palestinians than when perpetrated by Al Qaeda; and the PA is just another one of the despotic regimes in the region that the United States has set about to replace with governments committed to the establishment and expansion of political and economic freedom.

Of course, the PA, unlike all the other regimes targeted by the Bush Doctrine, is not a full-fledged state. But there's the rub. If Abbas and his colleagues want a state of their own, the price they will have to pay is both a serious commitment to democratization and a break with Arafat's policy of professing to accept Israel while waging a terrorist war against it for which he brazenly disclaimed any responsibility. Arafat got away with this game until he tried it on George W. Bush; if his successors are foolish enough to reach into the same bag of tricks, they stand to lose a great deal more than a few hundred million American dollars. For unless I completely misread him, George W. Bush will not be put off by the ritualistic condemnations of terrorism or the revolving-door arrests of the Arafat era; he will not be bamboozled by lies (“I never authorized this”); and he will not tolerate excuses (“I don't have the power to stop it”).

The upshot is that the Palestinians are now as subject as all the other regimes in the broader Middle East to the great new force Bush has set into motion throughout the region. Moreover, the velocity this force has acquired since the elections in Iraq on January 31 strongly suggests that the Bush Doctrine will have proved itself so decisively by the time its author leaves office that it will be next to impossible for his successor to change course. Hence, if the Palestinians are hoping to wait Bush out, the odds are that they are hoping in vain.

All in all, the plain fact is that the Palestinians are in a less advantageous position than any of the other regimes in the region to resist the Bush Doctrine, if only because, if they lose American support, the statehood they seek will most surely elude them.

Do the Palestinians really want statehood if it means giving up the dream they have always dreamed of eliminating a Jewish state from the Middle East? Arafat showed that he wanted no part of statehood on such terms when he rejected the offer of it made to him by Barak and Clinton. In this, the most crucial respect of all, it remains to be seen just how new the new leaders of the Palestinian Authority truly are.

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Friday, February 4-Wednesday, February 9

All the many experts we meet for the rest of our stay fully share in C.'s skepticism about the Palestinians. Even those who tend to credit the sincerity of Abbas's stated opposition to terrorism, and who take his professions of conversion to a two-state solution more or less at face value, also doubt that he possesses either the personal or the political strength to act upon them. But this is a positively sunny analysis as compared with what we keep hearing about Sharon. One briefer after another pours scorn on every feature of the admiring picture that had been drawn for us by A. when we first arrived.

The exceptions are few, and even they are less positive than mixed. For example, D., who acknowledges that Sharon has his virtues, and who supports the disengagement plan as the least bad of the available alternatives, also complains that Sharon is no respecter of democratic norms. In similar fashion, E., while grudgingly admitting that Sharon framed the right strategy for defeating the second intifada, goes on to attack him for failing to finish the job by dismantling the entire infrastructure of violence sheltered or operated by the PA.

From there it is all downhill into the swamps of motive-mongering. According to F., the only reason Sharon came up with his disengagement plan was to distract attention from the attorney general's investigations into various accusations of corruption against him and his sons. According to G., Sharon was courting favor with the Left so that he could betray his own supporters without losing power. According to H., Sharon the soldier may have been a hero, but Sharon the politician is only out to save his own skin, even if that means jeopardizing the safety of the country for which he once risked his life.

This kind of stuff puts me off, and I am relieved when I. comes along to present a respectable case against the disengagement plan. Sharon, I. maintains, has everything backward. By this he means that if there is to be a withdrawal from Gaza, it should follow upon, not precede, democratic reform. This is the position most famously associated with Natan Sharansky, whose own way of putting it is that the time for Jews to move out of areas heavily populated by Palestinians, if they should wish to do so, is when they are free to stay without having to fear for their lives.

My heart goes out to this idea, and I would like nothing better than to run with it. But the trouble is that, even in a best-case scenario for democratic reform within the PA, it will take a very long time before the lambs will be able to feel safe in lying down next to the lions of Gaza, Judea, and Samaria.

Why not wait, then? This is what I myself once thought was the best course for Israel to follow: that is, to stall until the arrival of that happy day when the Arab-Muslim world in general, and the Palestinians in particular, convincingly demonstrated that they had, however reluctantly, reconciled themselves to the existence of a sovereign Jewish state in their midst. And it was precisely because it was obvious no such day had arrived when the Oslo accords were signed that I felt sure the agreement would end in another violent assault against an Israel weakened by unilateral concessions.

_____________

Today, the opponents of the disengagement plan who see it as Oslo II, with Sharon cast as Rabin in wolf's clothing and Abbas as Arafat in a suit, seize upon every sign that the requisite change of heart has still not taken place. Yet even though I am inclined to agree with them about the Palestinians, I think they are wrong about Sharon.

Like Sharon in 2003, Rabin had been prompted to act in the early 1990's by a big change in world affairs. In his case, the change was the demise of the Soviet Union. As he saw it, this momentous event had completely altered the old “strategic equation” in the Middle East by depriving the “frontline” Arab states of the armorer they had previously depended upon for engaging Israel militarily. In consequence, there was almost no likelihood that they would start any more conventional wars, as they had done several times in the past. This meant in effect that the Palestinians were now on their own; and while they could, on their own, assuredly make life miserable for Israel through terrorism, they were too weak to pose an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. The only serious threat now came from the missiles of Iran and/or Iraq. To protect itself from that threat, Israel needed the help of the United States in building an effective system of antiballistic-missile defense.

Thus, for Rabin, the overriding strategic objective—merging military with political imperatives—was to ensure continued American support. How to do this? Well, the Americans were convinced that giving the Palestinians a state of their own was the answer to unrest and instability throughout the Middle East. It followed that if Israel were to drop its “intransigent” resistance to this solution, relations with Washington would be more or less permanently shored up. This would in one stroke eliminate any future possibility that Israel might be denied the advanced military technology on which its survival now rested and which it could only get from the Pentagon.

Whatever the other merits of this analysis, Rabin should have known, even if Washington did not know and did not wish to know, that the demise of the Soviet Union had not been accompanied by the end of Arab rejectionism in general or, in particular, by a new Palestinian willingness to accept a two-state solution. And Rabin should also have known, even if, again, Washington did not know and did not wish to know, that a Palestinian state ruled by Arafat was a formula for more and not less unrest and instability throughout the Middle East.

In short—as the outcome of Oslo would so vividly demonstrate—Rabin badly misjudged the significance for Israel of the big change that had taken place in the strategic environment of the early 1990's.

Obviously the count is not yet in on the significance for Israel of the big change wrought by 9/11 and the American response to it in the form of the Bush Doctrine, to both of which Sharon's disengagement plan is itself a response. But it is already safe to say that, as the second intifada killed off the

Israeli illusions behind Oslo, 9/11 marked the demise of “stability” as the be-all and end-all of American policy in the broader Middle East. “For decades,” Bush now declared, “free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression.” And so the United States under Bush adopted exactly the opposite approach, and has ever since been working to destabilize the old despotisms on which, in the pre-9/11 era, Washington had long relied.

The corollary—to say once more what cannot be said too often—is that George W. Bush will not cooperate (as his predecessors were ready and even eager to do) in the creation of a Palestinian state run by the likes of an Arafat. From this it follows that Arafat's successors—to repeat another thing that cannot be said too often—are being confronted by the Bush Doctrine with the choice between a two-state solution and no state at all. Therefore, even if the Palestinians have not undergone the change of heart on which I myself once thought Israel should wait for as long as it took, the Bush Doctrine will force them to behave (behave, not just talk) as though they have done so: to crack down on terrorism, to set a course toward political and economic freedom, and to forget about the “right of return.”6

Surely, then, it is too much to demand—as I., echoing Sharansky, does—the creation of an environment in which Jews can live at ease under Palestinian sovereignty. Surely, waiting indefinitely upon this happy eventuality would entail a failure to seize on the new possibilities created by the same Bush Doctrine of which Sharansky, who in this respect goes far beyond it, is otherwise a great booster (as is its author of him). Surely it is enough for now to demand of a Palestinian state-in-the-making that it convincingly demonstrate its intention to live on peaceful terms with the Jewish state beside it.

_____________

Other elements of a respectable case against the disengagement plan are presented by J., whose main theme is that, far from making Israel safer through a shortening (whether military or political) of its defensive lines, Sharon's policy will make it more vulnerable, and in at least two ways. First, since the Palestinians are entirely justified in interpreting Israel's withdrawal from Gaza as cutting and running in the face of terrorism, it will inevitably encourage more terrorist attacks. Second, with the redeployment of the army, the Israeli towns within reach of the Kassam rockets will now become even more naked unto their enemies than before.

Reasonable though these arguments may be, I am less moved by them than I am by I.'s Sharanksy-like stand. As to the prediction that terrorism will increase after the withdrawal from Gaza, I have already come to the conclusion that if it turns out to be right, it will bring about the loss (or, at a minimum, the suspension) of American support for a Palestinian state. So, too, if neighboring Israeli towns continue to be shelled. If these things happen, the outcome J. most fears and opposes will be headed off by yet another instance of the notorious Palestinian habit of never failing to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

J., however, also raises an objection to the fence that is harder for me to dismiss. Not that he questions its success as a security measure. How could he when, in areas where it has been completed, not a single suicide bomber has gotten through?7 Nevertheless, if it is true that the fence, when finished, will mark the de-facto border between Israel and the nascent Palestinian state, the question arises of how many Jews now living in Judea and Samaria it will be able to encompass. Is J. right in darkly predicting that as few as 50,000 of them will wind up within the new borders of the Jewish state, and that the other 190,000 will be added to the 8,000 of their fellows already slated for eviction from Gaza?

Some months ago, perhaps trying to mollify alarmists like J., Dov Weisglass, Sharon's top adviser, told an interviewer that, in exchange for the withdrawal of 8,000 Jews from Gaza, 190,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria would be able to stay in their homes. This statement was then subjected to denials and disavowals. Still, the impression I receive from a long one-on-one meeting with K., a high official of the Sharon government, is that the denials and disavowals were only an attempt to stuff a prematurely sprung cat back into the bag. The de-facto border being drawn by the fence, this official assures me, will encompass the big settlement blocs whose combined population does indeed add up to about 190,000 people.8

When I ask K. how he thinks this will go down with Washington, he pulls out a copy of Bush's letter to Sharon of April 14, 2004, and—adding his own heavy emphasis—quotes from the relevant passage:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 [i.e., the '67 borders].

Well, I think to myself, 190,000 is better than 50,000. But how on earth will Sharon pull it off without unleashing a mini civil war? Already there is much speculation about the violence that may erupt once the withdrawal starts in Gaza, where there are “only” 8,000 to be relocated. Already there are rabbis decreeing that it is forbidden for a Jew to force another Jew out of the land of Israel. And already people are wondering how many members of the IDF—about a third of whose officer corps is now religious to one degree or another—will pay heed to these rabbis and refuse to carry out what they might well consider illegal orders. And what about secular Israeli soldiers, especially those who sympathize with the settlers? (One such is my own grandson, who makes his mother look like a moderate, and who is now serving in the very unit of the IDF that will be sent to assist in the relocation.) What will happen if, God forbid, they are fired upon or otherwise assaulted and are required to use their guns in order to get the job done?

There is, I now learn from a briefing by L., a theory according to which Sharon is hoping for just such a horrendous outcome in Gaza so that he can persuade Washington that evacuating even as “few” as 50,000 settlers from the West Bank would be impossible. I very much doubt that Sharon has that much Machiavelli in him. I also doubt (wishfully?) that the settlers will go beyond passive resistance or force a bloody confrontation with the IDF. But at this stage, no one—certainly not an outsider like me—has any way of knowing for sure.

As an American, however, I think there is one thing I know better than any of the Israelis who have been briefing us all week, and it again concerns George W. Bush.

_____________

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists imagine that a nefarious cabal of neoconservative advisers—all of whom are Jewish “Likudniks” and are also either paid or unpaid agents of the Israeli government—have seduced this fool of a President into a policy whose stated goal may be to fight terrorism and to spread democracy throughout the broader Middle East, but whose real purpose is to serve Sharon's expansionist designs. Yet in almost comical contrast, what worries most of the Israeli Likudniks by whom we have been briefed this week is that Bush, in his eagerness to resolve Israel's conflict with the Palestinians through the establishment of a Palestinian state, will allow them to get away with violating the conditions he himself has attached to American support for such a state. At its most nightmarish, the fear is that Abbas will appease Hamas, Bush will appease Abbas, Sharon will appease both Abbas and Bush, and the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis will be disrupted and even ruined to make room for a terrorist state standing next to an Israel pushed back to the indefensible borders of 1967.

To me, after almost four years of watching Bush in action, this seems wildly off the mark. Indeed, just as I would be flabbergasted if Bush were to break faith with his pledge to help sow the seeds of political and economic freedoms throughout the broader Middle East, so I would be astounded were he to renege on the preconditions he has attached to his support for a Palestinian state. And here a fascinating irony occurs to me concerning my original misgivings about the road map.

I still think that the road map embodied an attempt by the usual suspects to sabotage the June 24 speech, but I now think that the joke may be on them. Yes, the authors of the road map did manage to reintroduce the old framework of “moral equivalence” that Bush had rejected on June 24. Nevertheless, the pretense that they were implementing his “vision” coerced them into including under phase I the demand that the Palestinian leadership “undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere.” Beyond going after these individuals and groups, the Palestinian Authority was also required to mount “effective operations aimed at . . . dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.”

Now, however, Abbas—who wants to negotiate with the terrorists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and those connected with his own party—is asking to be relieved of the demand that he crack down on them immediately and hard. There can be little doubt that the authors of the road map would like to support him on this, but Sharon is in a position to rub their noses in their own words, and that is just what he is doing.

Something similar seems to be shaping up with respect to the borders of the future Palestinian state. Under the road map, as soon as it is agreed that both parties have met all their obligations under phase I, they enter phase II, which is supposed to culminate in “the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders.” But Abbas would like to skip over this stage as well, and go directly into phase III, when the “permanent-status agreement” is to be forged on “borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements.” Here again, the authors of the road map would like to accommodate him, and here too Sharon is in a good position to see them hoist by their own petard.

The upshot is that unless Abbas amazes everyone by turning out to be willing and able both to undertake a genuine struggle against Palestinian terrorism and to speed up the pace of democratic reform, the process will probably get stalled in phase II. This will—just as Bush clearly envisaged in his June 24 statement—give the Israelis a chance to find out whether the Palestinians have truly decided to call off their war against the Jewish state before the most intractable issues get shoved onto the table.

Perhaps because there is so much talk of Sharansky in the air, this ironic turn in the role played by the road map brings up memories of what happened to the Helsinki accords of 1975. At the time, those of us who opposed the policy of détente with the Soviet Union denounced this agreement because it ratified the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in exchange for nothing more than a paper promise by Moscow to respect certain basic principles of human rights. Although we were right in thinking that the Soviets had no intention of living up to this promise, neither they nor we understood that it had put a very powerful weapon into the hands of dissidents like Sharanksy in their struggle against the Communist regime. Ultimately, Helsinki, instead of ensuring the permanence of the Soviet empire, contributed to its eventual demise.

The analogy is no more perfect than analogies usually are, but I suspect that the road map, which Sharon had good reason to resist endorsing, will wind up protecting him against the Quartet's unremitting campaign to let Abbas off the hook by diluting the demands that Bush made of the Palestinians on June 24, 2002, and which he keeps on reiterating in the same forceful terms whenever he returns to the subject.

_____________

In the end, then, it all comes back to Bush. So relentlessly have I harped on this that one exasperated briefer accuses me of harboring a veritably religious faith in him. The accusation stings because, if true, it would mean that I am again violating the vow I originally made to myself after the election of my old friend Daniel P. Moynihan to the United States Senate in 1976.

Like so many others who had worked to get him there, I had expected Moynihan to persist in the battle we had all been waging against the steadily leftward drift of the Democratic party. But when he broke our hearts by joining in that drift himself, I resolved that from then on I would abide by the words of the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in princes.” I managed to keep that promise even in relation to Ronald Reagan, who in those days seemed to me overly cautious in walking the walk of his thrilling anti-Communist talk. But then another old friend, Benjamin Netanyahu, became prime minister of Israel, and out the window went the exhortation of the Psalmist, only to fly back in when Bibi disappointed my hope that he would slam the brakes on Oslo.9

Is it now flying out again in relation to George W. Bush? I cannot in all honesty dismiss the possibility. And yet neither can I dismiss the possibility that this is one prince who, on the basis of repeated demonstration, deserves to be trusted.

When I suggest as much to Ruthie as we part, she shoots back without missing a beat: “What is it with you aliens? Weren't you satisfied with corrupting my father politically? Did you also have to go and turn him into an idolator?” As I did when she greeted me on my arrival, I laugh in appreciation of still another new twist on her antic idea of what has happened to me (this one inspired by my book celebrating the prophets of the Hebrew Bible as generals in a great war against idolatry).

But this time—affected as I have been by a week of exposure to the anxieties pervading the Israeli air—the laugh comes out sounding more than a little uneasy. And fully aware as I now am of the heavy price many thousands of Jews will have to pay for the increased security and the peace that I still believe Bush and Sharon, working together, will bring, it is also a laugh that—in accord with an old Yiddish expression now springing into my mind—carries within it the unmistakable intimation of tears.

—March 7, 2005

_____________


Footnotes

1 Actually, it was not by Sharon but rather by a succession of Labor governments after 1967 that Jews were first encouraged to settle in the territories.

2 See also, in COMMENTARY, Daniel Pipes, “Does Israel Need a Plan?” (February 2003) and Abraham D. Sofaer, “The U.S. and Israel: The Road Ahead” (May 2003).

3 Not having taken notes, I feared that I might misquote the speakers who briefed us. I also wanted to avoid saddling them with the responsibility for my own paraphrastic summaries of what they said. For these reasons I have withheld their names and disguised their identities in other ways as well. In addition to scrambling the dates on which we met with them, I have sometimes amalgamated points made by several different speakers and assigned them to a single one, and in other cases I have taken points made by a single speaker and distributed them among several. I have done my best, however, to present an accurate account of the points themselves and of the general arguments they serve.

4 I have always thought that the best comment on the absurdity of this paradigm came from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. When, during his brief stint as our ambassador to the UN in the mid-1970's, Moynihan was criticized for refusing to remain diplomatically silent in the face of anti-American tirades, he responded by quoting an old French maxim: “How wicked is this animal. When he is attacked he defends himself.”

5 This prediction was borne out by the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on February 25—the first in more than three months.

6 Bush made this last condition explicit in writing to Sharon on April 14, 2004: “It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue . . . will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”

7 It appears that the one who got through into Tel Aviv a few weeks later was only able to make it because that part of the fence has not yet been completed.

8 This is another forecast that was largely borne out in the weeks ahead. Thus, the new route approved by the Israeli cabinet on February 20 will encompass upward of 185,000 settlers while leaving some 55,000 on the Palestinian side. Furthermore, as K. also predicted, this will be accomplished without either a “land grab” or a return to the '67 borders, since the territory on the Israeli side of the fence will comprise only 8 percent of the West Bank.

9 He has, however, greatly exceeded my expectations as finance minister.

_____________


About the Author

Norman Podhoretz has been writing for COMMENTARY for 56 years.




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