WASHINGTON -- Conservative sage William J. Bennett, blunt as ever, last Thursday said publicly what elected Republican officials say privately. President Bush's new Middle East peace initiative, said Bennett, is "making very angry ... his entire political base. A firestorm is starting to build -- a firestorm of criticism." That defined the political threat to the president for seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The transcript of Bennett's remarks (in his new role as a CNN contributor) was perused, but not officially commented on, by senior aides at the White House. They are concerned. Bennett may have exaggerated a little, but not much. I telephoned several prominent Republican conservatives, some of them elected officials, who were in unanimous agreement with Bennett while declining to go public.
The implications for George W. Bush are horrendous. From his first day in office, he has tried to avoid his father's alienation of the conservative Republican base. Nevertheless, his aides tell me, the president intends to proceed with peacemaking even if it means undermining his political game plan. It does cause Bush to tread carefully, however.
That reality is appreciated in Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been able to brush off, with impunity, U.S. demands for military withdrawal "without delay" from the Palestinian territories. When Sharon refused at their meeting Friday to give Colin Powell any timetable for ending the military offensive, the secretary of state did not publicly insist. Sharon has called Washington's bluff.
Congressional criticism of the Bush peace initiative has publicly come from the usual suspects -- partisan Democrats with large Jewish constituencies, such as Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. ("We're telling Israel, which is simply trying to defend herself, to pull back, " Schumer complained last week.) Bush doesn't worry about the Chuck Schumers. What bothers the White House are the Bill Bennetts.
Bennett represents gradual but accelerating escalation of support for Israel from the Republican Party's dominant conservative wing, especially from the Christian religious right. When 46 years ago a Republican president in the midst of his re-election campaign took a tough stand against the Israeli attack on Egypt, Dwight D. Eisenhower did not have to worry about his party's base. Conservatives then tilted toward the Arabs. The move by the American right, overwhelmingly non-Jewish, toward Israel has intensified over the last 10 years.
Some Israeli policies are more popular with Republican conservatives than others. The Oslo agreement and the former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's failed peace initiative are not. Sharon's Bismarckian policy of settling the Palestinian question with blood and iron are.
Even more popular than Sharon is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was lionized by Republican lawmakers in Washington last week during an apparent campaign trip to get his old job back. Netanyahu is even tougher than Sharon in his stated intent to bring peace by destroying the Palestinian Authority and exiling Yasser Arafat. When Netanyahu pleaded with Republican senators not to "pressure" Israel to stop defending itself in an implicit criticism of Bush, no senator spoke in defense of the president.
Nor did White House spokesman Ari Fleischer question the propriety of Netanyahu's electioneering on Capitol Hill. Instead, Fleischer -- echoing what senior aides are saying -- contradicted reality and what Sharon himself told Powell by insisting that the Israelis really are obeying the president's demand, however slowly. In a calculated White House hedge, Fleischer stressed that Powell's Israeli-opposed meeting with Arafat was the secretary of state's idea, not the president's.
Since hedging won't get Bill Bennett back on the president's side, Bush might consider the words of a distinguished Israeli Knesset member: former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin. In a PBS interview Thursday, he asserted "this operation has cost us a lot, not only in our international image, which has deteriorated, but I believe that mainly we increased ambitions on the Palestinian side to take revenge, and we increased the hatred toward us." Beilin also called the Palestinians "not a group of terrorists like al Qaida" but a "big nation with several millions of people" who long ago chose Arafat as their leader.
Middle East specialists at the State Department agree with Beilin. For President Bush to publicly concur would feed Bennett's firestorm.