In Pro-Israel Circles, Doubts Grow Over US Policy

A growing debate within Israel over whether United States President George W. Bush’s Middle East policies really serve the interests of the Jewish state has spread to Washington, where influential voices within the U.S. Jewish community are questioning the administration’s hard-line positions in the region.

Coming in the wake of the month-long war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, during which Washington provided virtually unconditional support and encouragement to Tel Aviv, the debate has focused initially on the wisdom of Bush’s efforts to isolate rather than engage Syria, the indispensable link in the military supply chain between Iran and the Shia militia.

But the debate over Syria policy may mark the launch of a broader challenge among Israel’s supporters here to the administration’s reliance on unilateralism, military power, and "regime change" in the Middle East – whose most fervent champions have been neoconservatives and the right-wing leadership of the so-called "Israel lobby."

"Bush has been convinced by self-appointed spokesmen for Israel and the Jewish community that endless war is in Israel’s interest," asserted the lead editorial in the U.S.’ most important Jewish newspaper, the Forward, immediately after the cease-fire took effect.

"[Bush] needs to hear in no uncertain terms that Israel is ready for dialogue, that the alternative – endless jihad – is unthinkable," declared the paper, which argued for Israel’s participation in a regional dialogue with its Arab neighbors, including Syria, for a comprehensive peace settlement. "Now is time to change the tune," the Forward concluded.

While such a regional negotiation is unlikely to be accepted either by Washington or Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the short term, the question of engaging Syria is rapidly moving up the agenda both in Israel, where several Cabinet ministers have endorsed the idea, and in Washington, where the traditional foreign policy elite – from Republican realists like former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Democratic internationalists such as former Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright – publicly criticized Bush for rejecting talks with Damascus, at the very least to probe its willingness to rein in Hezbollah, if not loosen its alliance with Iran, during the past month’s fighting.

"I can’t for the life of me understand why we don’t [talk with] Syria," said James Dobbins, an analyst at the RAND Corporation who, as a senior State Department official, coordinated the Bush administration’s diplomacy during and immediately after the war in Afghanistan.

"I think this idea that we don’t talk to our enemies simply has to be jettisoned," he told a forum at the New America Foundation (NAF) in Washington last week.

Dobbins’ critique echoes those raised by a number of prominent Jewish figures, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and Dennis Ross, the main U.S. negotiator on Israeli-Palestinian issues under Bush’s father and former President Bill Clinton, and organizations in recent weeks.

The most direct challenge surfaced here Tuesday when the Zionist group Americans for Peace Now (APN) sent a letter to Bush calling on him to clarify whether his administration opposes renewed peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.

"Unfortunately, many in Israel and the U.S. believe that your administration is standing in the way of renewed Israel-Syria contacts. We urge you to clarify, publicly and expeditiously, that this is not the case" said the letter, which also called on Bush to "reject the thinking of those who view the Syrian regime as irredeemable."

While the administration is likely to dodge the question, its commitment to isolating Syria, particularly since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has never been in doubt.

Indeed, in the opening days of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel, the White House not only reportedly rebuffed an appeal by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself for Washington to quietly approach Damascus about pressing Hezbollah to release two Israeli soldiers whose capture touched off the crisis, but also urged Olmert, according to one account in the Jerusalem Post, to attack Syria directly.

"In a meeting with a very senior Israeli official, [Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot] Abrams indicated that Washington would have no objection if Israel chose to extend the war beyond to its other northern neighbor, leaving the interlocutor in no doubt that the intended target was Syria," a well-informed source, who received an account of the meeting from one of its participants, told IPS this week.

While Abrams was discreetly urging Israel to expand the war to Syria, his neoconservative allies, some of whom, like former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, are regarded as close to Vice President Dick Cheney, were more explicit, to the extent even of expressing disappointment over Israel’s lack of aggressiveness or success in "getting the job done."

Cheney’s own Middle East advisers, John Hannah and David Wurmser, have long favored "regime change" in Damascus, and, according to the New York Times, argued forcefully – and successfully with help from Abrams and pressure from the Israel lobby’s leadership – against efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to persuade Bush to open a channel to Syria in an effort to stop the recent fighting.

But Bush’s adamant refusal to engage Damascus is precisely what has raised doubts in Israel about whether his policies are in the long-term or even in the immediate interests of the Jewish state.

Since the cease-fire, a growing number of former and current senior Israeli officials, including Olmert’s defense, interior, and foreign ministers, have called for talks with Damascus. And, while Olmert himself has rejected the idea for now, he has also abandoned his previous precondition for such talks – that Washington remove Syria from its terrorism list.

Of the officials, the two most important are both former Likud Party members – Interior Minister Avi Dichter, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who reportedly enjoys a strong relationship with Rice and has appointed her former chief of staff, Yaakov Dayan, to explore possible ways to engage Syria.

Meanwhile, other prominent Israelis are asking even more basic questions about the regional strategy pursued by Bush and its consequences for Israel.

In a column published by the Ha’aretz newspaper last week, former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami argued that, in the aftermath of the Lebanon war, which, in his view, had "proven the limits of [Israeli] power," a peace accord with Syria and the Palestinians had become "essential" for Israel, particularly in light of "the worrisome decline of the status of Israel’s ally in this part of the world and beyond."

"U.S. deterrence, and respect for the superpower have been eroded unrecognizably," he wrote. "An exclusive Pax Americana in the Middle East is no longer possible because not only is the U.S. not an inspiration today, it does not instill fear."

Indeed, the widespread perception that Washington’s influence in the region has fallen sharply as a result of both the war in Iraq and the administration’s stubborn refusal to engage its foes diplomatically has raised new questions about whether Bush and his neoconservative advisers have actually made Israel less rather than more secure.

"[The] Bush administration at first avoided and then was unable to deliver the diplomatic agility that was called for, and that is bad news for Israel," wrote former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy in this week’s Forward. "The United States had no direct channels to or leverage with key actors, and could not commit troops to any cease-fire implementation force."

"The idea that current American policy advances Israeli security and national interests is thoroughly discredited – something that is now openly aired in the Israeli media, and raised, albeit in more discreet circles, by Israeli Cabinet ministers," according to Levy, who currently directs the NAF’s and Century Foundation’s Middle East Initiative.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.