U.S.-Israel Train Wreck Diverted
Israel could be headed toward an even more right-wing government, but that may not result in a diplomatic collision with the Bush administration.
As administration officials here absorbed this week’s stunning news — including the explosive end of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “unity” government, his unsuccessful effort to assemble a narrow right-wing ruling coalition and his call for new elections in early February — there were concerns about what the dramatic developments would mean for sputtering U.S. peace efforts and for the effort to create an international anti-Iraq coalition.
But analysts across the political spectrum agreed that under most likely scenarios, the chances of a new rupture between the two allies are slim.
“Right now, [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] is not the most pressing item on the administration’s agenda,”
said Edward Walker, a former top State Department official and ambassador to Israel. “They are much more focused on Iraq, on terrorism, on relations with potential supporters.”
Only a sharp policy turn by the Sharon government — including “an open break with Oslo or a denial of the validity of a two-state solution or a frenzy of settlement activity” — could lead to a breach with an administration that has been willing to keep the peace process on the back burner, he said.
And an open breach is unlikely, given Sharon’s strong determination to keep relations with Washington on an even keel despite the chaos in Jerusalem. That determination was evident in Sharon’s Tuesday call for new elections.
“I will not deviate from the responsible policy of the government,” he said. “I will not undermine our strategic understandings with the United States; I will not endanger the special relationship which my government formed with the White House,” Sharon said on Tuesday.
Jewish leaders here said that a major factor in his decision to abandon efforts to create a narrow right-wing government was his unwillingness to give in to the demands of far-right potential partners — demands that could have led to new strains with Washington.
Under some scenarios, a big Likud victory at the polls — which recent surveys say is possible — could actually smooth relations between the two allies.
“Washington is very comfortable with the prime minister,” said Henry Siegman, director of the Middle East program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If Likud picks up new Knesset seats, it will reduce Sharon’s need to turn to the far-right parties to form a government.”
Even if the White House is unhappy with the direction of the Israeli government, he said, it is unlikely to express that concern as it focuses all its energy on the impending Iraq battle.
Analysts say that domestic political factors, including solid support for the Israeli right among congressional conservatives and the 2004 presidential elections, will also temper the administration response.
Daniel Pipes, a leading peace process critic, said that Washington’s inability to line up international support for its war on Iraq could also mitigate against any harsh reaction to a harder-line Israeli government.
One reason for recent U.S. pressure on Israel has been the administration’s desire to appease Arab governments it hoped would support its drive against Iraq, he said.
“Now that it’s clear that help is not forthcoming, it may take the pressure off the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Pipes.
Pipes said the dramatic developments in Israel, and the prospect of a new government even less inclined to compromise, could “speed up the Palestinians’ process of rethinking their entire approach. Their campaign of violence has failed abysmally; this political change in Israel only confirms that.”
But Walker said that a stepped-up Israeli military campaign as elections near could “spur new Palestinian violence.”
A wild card in the mix is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s top rival for Likud leadership and now the foreign minister of his interim government.
Netanyahu is disliked by top Bush administration officials, but he is wildly popular among congressional Republicans. And Jewish leaders here say Netanyahu would be an ideal public spokesman for Israel if U.S. troops march on Iraq before the Israeli elections.
New Elections: Another Hitch For U.S. ‘Road Map’
This week’s dramatic developments in Jerusalem will also put the administration’s latest Mideast peace plan — the much-derided “road map” to creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 — on the back burner.
But that may be a positive thing, said a top Mideast scholar and peace process supporter.
“For the next three months, any diplomatic activity toward peace is effectively frozen,” said Robert O. Freedman, a scholar at Baltimore Hebrew University. “And that may give the Bush administration a chance to tune up the road map.”
The plan was intended to flesh out President Bush’s June 24 speech laying out U.S. support for creation of a Palestinian state. But Assistant Secretary of State William Burns got a chilly reception from Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders during his recent swing through the region.
The administration will continue working on the plan, Freedman predicted — but there is little likelihood of much action until after the February elections in Israel. And a further delay is almost certain if the United States is involved in a hot war against Iraq when the new Israeli government is formed.
CFR’s Henry Siegman said that the equation could change if there is a quick victory in the drive to topple Saddam Hussein. “If that happens, there may indeed be a collision between the next Likud government and the Bush administration because Washington may decide to move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian front,” he said.
But few analysts expect a quick victory; a protracted U.S. -Iraq war could force Washington to put off any serious Mideast peace drive indefinitely.
There’s one more factor that could complicate U.S.-Israel diplomacy: interference in the upcoming elections by officials in Washington. Recent Israeli contests have been marked by charges of blatant meddling by administrations that played favorites because of the peace process.
But pro-Israel leaders say that this time around, there’s little likelihood the Bush administration will get involved.
“After seven meetings and going through 9-11 together, there’s a comfort level between Sharon and Bush,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “There is a level of trust. So the administration will be content to let the democratic process in Israel move forward.”
That simpatico relationship may have been boosted further by this week’s assassination of a group of Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, apparently by CIA forces using an advanced drone aircraft.
“That action indicates the extent to which Israeli tactics against Palestinian terrorism, which American was uncomfortable with, have become American tactics,” Foxman said.
Pounding Egypt for Anti-Semitism
Egypt is supposed to be at peace with Israel, but you’d never know it by the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic incitement tolerated or even encouraged by the government of President Hosni Mubarak.
In recent days Jewish groups have been trying to increase the pressure on Cairo, both through private contacts with administration officials and public demonstrations of outrage.
And some lawmakers say they’ll hit Egypt where it really hurts: in their foreign aid allotment.
On Monday, some 200 local activists gathered in front of the Egyptian embassy to protest the airing of a dramatic series based on the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
The TV programs, titled “Horse Without a Horseman,” were scheduled to air throughout Ramadan on a government-controlled station.
The “stand against hate” protest was organized by the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.
The program represents “egregious anti-Semitism from Israel’s most important peace partner,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the community group. “Twenty Five years after Camp David, we’re seeing the worst kind of anti-Semitism, and our community decided to act.”
Last week, leaders of the Anti-Defamation League met with top administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice; the surge in Egyptian anti-Semitism was high on their agenda.
The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, David Welch, is actively raising the issue, officials of the group said.
Numerous lawmakers are also getting into the act. At least 45 House members have signed a letter to Mubarak stating that “the U.S.-Egypt relationship is founded in our shared strategic interest in the stability of the region and this show is a serious threat to that important goal.” The letter was written by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) wants to do more. In a congressional “Dear Colleague” letter, Nadler is promising an amendment to “cut all military funding to Egypt until such time that it can be authorized that they have begun the road to peace with, and understanding of, other nations, cultures and religions.”