Reading the Tea Leaves

As Crown Prince Abdullah left Rancho Dubya, neoconservative princeling Bill Kristol stamped his foot and shrilly demanded to know “What was the point of Saudi crown prince Abdullah’s trip to Crawford, Texas? Nothing substantial emerged from the so-called summit.” Less than 24 hours later, the President had sprung Arafat from his Ramallah jail. Does that answer your question, Bill?The Crawford meeting was preceded by an extraordinary “leak” in the New York Times, in which a source close to the Saudis averred that it may be time for the Arab world to use the “oil weapon” against the US: unless and until the American President stopped kowtowing to Ariel Sharon, the prospect of US forces being asked to leave the Saudi peninsula was definitely on the agenda. This anonymous “person close to the Crown Prince” further opined:

“It is a mistake to think that our people will not do what is necessary to survive, and if that means we move to the right of bin Laden, so be it; to the left of Qaddafi, so be it; or fly to Baghdad and embrace Saddam like a brother, so be it. It’s damned lonely in our part of the world, and we can no longer defend our relationship to our people.”

Mr. Anonymous also said that, if Abdullah didn’t get a commitment from the President to rein in Sharon, the Crown Prince would cut his visit short, return to Riyadh, and convene an Arab summit: the breach with the US would be out in the open, and the Muslim world, under Saudi leadership, would brace for a confrontation with Washington. However, “If Bush freed Arafat and cleared Bethlehem, it would be a big victory, show a stiffening of spine,” said the source, who did not sound at all hopeful that this would be accomplished. Now that at least half the deal is in the bag, and given the swiftness with which the President moved to pressure Sharon, it would appear that Saudi pessimism was unjustified, at least in the short term. The events of the past few weeks – the new US initiative, Powell’s trip, the freeing of Arafat – hold a lesson, and it is this: the Israel-centric orientation of Bush’s Middle East policy has been effectively challenged, if not quite abolished.

BUSHIAN CONTINUITY

Bush’s critics complain that he has shifted his position, with the President veering between statements that seemed to give unconditional support for Sharon and outbursts of frustration – “Enough is enough”! – at the Israeli Prime Minister’s intransigence. But if we look at the President’s actions, as opposed to mere words, it appears that George W. Bush has indeed grown a spine. US policy in the Middle East under Bush II is turning out to be remarkably similar to that of Bush I. All the while protesting his absolute loyalty to Israel, the President has, nonetheless, made a distinction between the political survival of Sharon and the survival of Israel as a nation. In spite of early indications that the neoconservative Israel-firsters had gained the upper hand in this administration, the reassertion of the Saudi factor as primary has clarified this Bushian continuity – and sent Sharon running to Washington to try and salvage the situation.

ROPE-A-DOPE? – NOPE!

A whole school of thought exists that sees in Bush’s Middle East initiative a “rope-a-dope” theory, with the Saudis being the dopes. Oh, don’t worry, says Michael Barone, the President is really in Israel’s camp: after all, he’s going after Iraq, isn’t he? But Barone had no sooner posted his fanciful rendition of the Bush-Abdullah summit as an “agree-to-disagree meeting,” when the Arafat prison break was announced and a more factual account of the meeting was published in the Washington Post.

THE PRINCE AND THE PRESIDENT

The Crown Prince came well-prepared, not only with a concrete proposal – free Arafat and end the Bethlehem stand-off – but with videotapes of the fighting in Palestine, documenting the depredations of the IDF, which the two of them reportedly watched. The meeting went a few hours over its allotted time. There was a personal “bonding,” it was said afterwards, and the two of them seemed to come to an understanding relatively quickly. On the other hand, the President had an excruciatingly bad time negotiating with Sharon. And herein lies the real catalyst for the changing trajectory of US policy…

WAITING FOR YOSEF

After a long two days of negotiations between intermediaries culminating in a phone call between Bush and Sharon, the former – finally! – laid it on the line to this “man of peace.” Oh, to have been the proverbial fly on the wall during that conversation – or, actually, three separate conversations, according to reports. In the end, whatever Bush said must have been extremely effective, because Sharon went back to his Cabinet and reversed his position completely, asking that they abandon the campaign to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority, and, instead, free Arafat. Sharon’s ministers balked, and the first vote was a tie, 13-13. Prior to the second vote, taken after further consultations between National Security advisor Condolezza Rice and Sharon foreign policy advisor Danny Ayalon, the five ministers of the ultra-right Shas party considered voting with Sharon, but first had to consult with their spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Unfortunately, the 81-year-old Rabbi was sleeping, and couldn’t be disturbed. Associated Press reports:

“American officials were kept waiting on an open telephone line for at least half an hour for an answer, asking what was going on, as everyone waited for Yosef. Finally, at about 4 p.m., Yosef came on the line and approved voting in favor of the U.S. proposal in order to avoid creating a crisis for Israel in general and for Sharon in particular.”

That American officials have to wait on the pleasure of some right-wing oracle, the Israeli equivalent of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, underscores the absurdity of a US policy that is increasing held hostage by the Israeli fringe. This, after all, is the same Rabbi Yoset who caused an uproar when he announced that the 6 million victims of the Holocaust "were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things that should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone." He also denounced the Palestinians, in the same speech, as "snakes."

THE DEAL

The Rice-Ayalon telephone marathon — the two were in constant communication during Israeli Cabinet meeting — apparently resulted in a deal: the US will shield Israel from any meaningful investigation into war crimes committed at Jenin, in exchange for letting Arafat go. Well, I guess that settles, once and for all, the question of whether or not there was a massacre. What, after all, was the basis of this deal except the promise of a cover-up? Clearly Bush had something on the Israelis: how else can we explain Sharon’s sudden turnaround, and the expenditure of so much political capital persuading his shaky coalition government to go along? Gee, it kinda makes one wonder — what was on those tapes Prince Abdullah brought with him on his visit specifically to show the President?

IN THE LAND OF THE NEOCONS

Barone, Andrew Sullivan, and the more pro-Bush wing of the neocons would much rather lull themselves into a pleasant state of non-perception than acknowledge the new turn in US Middle East policy. However, the hardcore neocons – the two Bills, Kristol and Bennett, and of course Norman Podhoretz – are more realistic, and more willing to launch a frontal assault on the President. Look for it in the week leading up to Sharon’s visit. While many conservatives support Israel quite strongly, they are unlikely to break with the President over the issue. On the other hand, the American Likudniks, who want to make America Sharon’s enabler, unleashing him to ethnically cleanse Palestine and annex the West Bank, have a strategy of rule or ruin.

For them, Bush’s actions – sending Powell to meet Arafat, and now freeing the PLO chairman – amount to a “betrayal” of Israel that cannot be forgiven or forgotten. To be bested at the hands of the Saudis – considered, according to the neocon conspiracy theory, to be the secret masters of world terrorism, and Israel’s mortal enemy – is especially galling to these folks. They see Riyadh the way they used to view the Kremlin: as the capital of an Evil Empire that must be destroyed. “Moral clarity” is supposed to tell us that Israel’s fight is our fight, and that an alliance of the US and Israel against the entire Arab-Muslim world is the “new” post-9/11 reality. For the neoconservative element in this administration, the invasion and conquest of Iraq would be just the beginning of the “liberation” of the Middle East – and the elimination of Israel’s enemies once and for all.

THE BIG FREEZE

Whatever the extent of the President’s personal attachment to and sympathy for Israel, it is clear that, for the moment, the neocons have been frozen out of the big policy-making decisions. Bush senior and Colin Powell are now in the ascendancy, along with two other important factors driving US policy in the region: domestic politics, and the objective requirements of the US national interest. I covered the domestic political angle, to some degree, in my last column, noting a budding alliance of the American Likudniks and certain prominent Democrats. The latest wrinkle in this aspect of the story is bound to be increasingly open dissension within Republican ranks – or, at least, as much as the neocons can muster. Look for John McCain to make a grab for the spotlight: his recent speech to AIPAC, every line of which is an implicit criticism of the Bush tilt toward the Saudis, has already gained some attention, and we can expect more of the same.

OBSTACLES TO THE WAR PARTY

As for the objective requirements of US policy, the neocon stance of isolating the US from every country in the Middle East except Israel, Turkey, and perhaps Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman would amount to a strategic disaster for the US. In the midst of his “war on terrorism,” the President would lose most of his allies, including the Europeans – and the economic consequences of an “oil shock” would send his domestic political prospects into a tailspin. These same factors, of course, bedevil his announced policy of overthrowing Saddam, and imperil the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz plan to launch a US invasion of Iraq. The chief obstacle to the War Party on this front has been Crown Prince Abdullah, now quite visibly taking the reins of his kingdom firmly in hand, openly stating that a US invasion would be unacceptable. While the US is already transferring its bases to Qatar, Bahrain, and some of the smaller Gulf states, Kuwait is the key. But Iraq recently recognized Kuwaiti sovereignty, with Saddam and the Emir reaching an understanding, and it is by no means certain that the Al Sabah clan would allow their realm to be used as a launching pad for US military action – an uncertainty that makes the whole invasion project iffy, at best.

DEATH OF AN URBAN MYTH

In spite of all the talk about invasion plans, with various timetables being bandied about, the Saudis say they have been assured by Washington that the decision for or against a “regime change” in Iraq – or the means to achieve it – has yet to be finalized. With the last alleged Iraq “link” to 9/11 exposed as an urban myth – it turns out that Mohammed Atta didn’t meet with that Iraqi agent in Prague after all – the rationale for Gulf War II begins to unravel.

(Oh, but don’t worry: they’re ready with a new conspiracy theory. It was Saddam, and not Tim McVeigh, who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building. Uh huh. Oh yeah, and he’s responsible for the anthrax attacks, too, in spite of overwhelming evidence that the probable perpetrator is an American scientist who worked for our own government. No word yet as to whether Saddam is also to blame for those recent tornadoes.)

With Osama bin Laden still running around loose, an Iraq war scenario begins to make even less sense. And while the US calls for UN inspectors to be let into Iraq and given unlimited access to all sites, many Americans may begin to wonder why UN inspectors are not being let into Jenin.

ISRAEL’S NATTERING NABOBS OF NEGATIVITY

Unlike the Israelis, whose stance is consistently rejectionist, the Saudis have presented a positive paradigm for peace. The Saudi plan calls for Arab recognition of Israel in return for withdrawal from the occupied territories and the creation of a viable Palestinian state with a shared capital in Jerusalem. Sharon – and Benjamin Netanyahu, his even more intransigent right-wing rival, waiting in the wings – can only say “No!”

Aside from grating on the nerves of the Bush administration, this negativism is not going to go over big with the American public. Israel has accumulated quite a lot of moral and political capital over the years, but its present rulers – and their apologists in this country – are spending it fast. George W. Bush has been very patient with Sharon, and has done everything humanly possible to accommodate the American Likudniks in his own party. But events have pushed the President to choose between the interests of his own country, and those of a favored ally. So far, at least, George W. Bush seems to be making all the correct choices: he is stumbling, uncertainly and tentatively, onto the right path.

Oh, and one more thing: If I were the War Party, I wouldn’t be so smugly complacent about the certainty of war with Iraq by next year: if Sharon gives Bush much more trouble than he already has, it may be time to shelve the war plans indefinitely.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].