Commentary Magazine


Busting the Bush-Israel Myth

Will Marshall and Jim Arkedis of the Progressive Policy Institute have published an article on Real Clear Politics titled “America as an Honest Broker.” I know Marshall and consider him to be, in the main, a responsible figure and a force for good in the Democratic Party. But his joint piece on America, Israel, and Hamas is, I think, superficial and sloppy in its arguments.

Marshall and Arkedis urge President-elect Obama to reverse “his predecessor’s decision to stand aloof from the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.” It is “hard to argue now that presidential disengagement has enhanced Israel’s security goals in the region.” According to Marshall and Arkedis, Obama needs to undo President Bush’s “post-9/11 habit of offering nearly unqualified support for Israel’s policy.” President-elect Obama should “act promptly to restore America’s credibility as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” President Bush, after all, has “undermined America’s reputation for even-handedness in the region” by “giving Israel a pass on making tough choices necessary for lasting peace.” The United States needs to once again become a “trusted intermediary” rather than “blindly defending [Israel’s] policies and military tactics.” And while it is “tragically true” that Hamas is using innocent Gazans as human shields, Israel cannot “afford to take a cavalier attitude toward civilian deaths.” While Israel has a right to respond to the attacks by Hamas, Israel should have “limited goals” based on a “limited incursion.”

Let’s examine these claims with some care.

1. President Bush was not “aloof” or “disengaged” from the conflict. In fact, in his June 24, 2002 speech in the Rose Garden, the President laid out the conditions for a two-state solution: the Palestinians would need to find new leaders uncompromised by terror; willing to engage in a sustained fight against terror and dismantle terrorist infrastructure; and willing to practice democracy based on liberty and tolerance. President Bush had seen the kind of engagement President Clinton practiced in 2000, when Yasser Arafat was offered essentially all of the land Israel won in the 1967 war, in exchange for the Palestinians recognizing Israel’s right to exist and stopping their attacks against Israel. In response, Arafat declared a second, bloody intifada.

President Bush laid out a perfectly sensible policy: Palestinian statehood, which he spoke about in eloquent and moving terms, in exchange for peaceful co-existence with Israel. Marshall and Arkedis appear to believe that a Palestinian state should be granted on the West Bank even if its purpose is to destroy Israel. What we are dealing with is not a matter of engagement v. disengagement; this is a matter of a wise policy v. a foolish one.

2. On the assertion that Israel has been given a “pass” by President Bush from making “tough choices” necessary for “lasting peace”: Perhaps Marshall and Arkedis are unaware of the fact that in 2005 — during President Bush’s watch — Israel did what its critics had been demanding of it: unilaterally return land to the Palestinians, offering them in Gaza what they had never received before from any other nation (including Arab nations): the opportunity for self-rule. This was an act done by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, father of the settlements in the West Bank, in part because of his trust in President Bush.

Here’s an inconvenient fact for Marshall and Arkedis: More land was ceded to the Palestinians in 2005 than in all the years Bill Clinton was President. Sharon, with encouragement from Bush, was willing to test the proposition that the Palestinians would govern responsibility. It turned out they could not or would not. Hamas eventually took control of Gaza and began launching rockets and mortars against Israel, to which Israel finally, in the last few weeks, responded. Israel has consistently made the “tough choices” for peace, from returning the Sinai desert to Egypt to offering Arafat virtually all the land it acquired in the 1967 war to allowing the Palestinians to rule Gaza.

3. On the argument that the U.S. ought to be an “honest broker” and “even-handed” in its policies toward Israel and the Palestinians: if Israel has an interlocutor that is interested in authentic peace, the U.S. is quite willing and capable of being “even-handed.” But in truth, if Israel finds such a nation — like, say, Jordan or Egypt — it’s quite willing to make peace without being forced into it by the United States. Israel actually seeks to live in peace with its Arab neighbors, and has proved this time and time again.

The problem is that so far Palestinian leaders — from those leading the PLO to Hamas — have not made their own inner peace with the existence of Israel. As long as that is the case, the United States is perfectly right in distinguishing between what Churchill called the fire brigade and the fire. The insistence that America treat both sides as moral equals, with equally legitimate claims, is absurd. One nation wants peace and has taken steps to make peace; the other wants war and has taken steps to make war. Why on earth should we be “even-handed” when dealing with defenders of civilization and its enemies? Nor are we “blindly” defending Israel; we are, in fact, defending Israel with our eyes wide open, because we understand that their battle against militant Islam is inextricably tied up with our battle against militant Islam.

4. The claim that Israel is “cavalier” when it comes to civilian deaths is slander. Israel, in fact, has taken heroic steps to prevent civilian deaths. Hamas, on the other hand, has done everything it can to cause the deaths of innocent women and children in order to win a propaganda victory. That doesn’t mean from time to time Israel and Israelis won’t make mistakes; those things are tragically inevitable in war. But it is perverse to scold Israel, which after all is trying to prevent the death of innocent civilians in Gaza and Israel, while letting off lightly Hamas, which is creating the conditions for death among innocent civilians in both Gaza and Israel.

5. Marshall and Arkedis concede the barbarism of Hamas and Israel’s justification in responding to its attacks. They concede the premise, then, yet they don’t seem to draw the obvious conclusion from it. The worst thing for Israel to do is to engage in a military conflict with Hamas but not finish the job. Half-measures allow groups like Hamas to withstand military attacks and claim a “psychological” victory, which in turn will increase those groups’ popular support. Militant Islamic groups gain strength and adherents when they are perceived as the “strong horse” and we and Israel are perceived as the “weak horse.”

The prescription of Marshall and Arkedis is the worst of all possible worlds: a half-hearted response that is limited in its scope and allows Hamas to rearm and fight another day. Marshall and Arkedis are demanding of Israel what they would never demand of America or any other nation.

The course Israel is following is the best way to advance its security goals and, more broadly, the cause of the West. Beyond that, a true “peace process” can only commence when organizations like Hamas are defeated and therefore, to the degree possible, delegitimized.

Defeating Hamas isn’t an easy or welcome undertaking — but it is, now, an absolutely essential one. It’s a shame that Marshall and Arkedis don’t understand the nature and stakes of the struggle. I only hope President-elect Obama does.

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