WASHINGTON -- Meeting privately with the Baker-Hamilton commission before its report on Iraq was released, George W. Bush did not seem pleased. So, when a Republican member said he believed it was imperative to get moving on the stalled Israel-Palestine peace process, a negative response from the president was expected. Instead, he replied: "I do, too."
Those three little words posed questions. Was Bush merely indulging James Baker and the Iraq Study Group's other wise men? Or, after not pursuing Middle East peace the past six years, had he concluded the necessity of stabilizing the region, including Israel? The consensus of commission members was that the president was sincere, assessing linkage between Iraq and Israel.
The intense criticism of the Baker-Hamilton group from neo-conservatives stems from that linkage, clearly set out in the report. Commission members feel the urgency of progress on the Israeli front more deeply than is reflected in the formal language. They are not Israel-bashers. One commission member with a long record of support for Israel feels the country's very existence is at stake. He reported to me warnings from experts friendly to Israel that staying on the present track will threaten the Jewish state within 40 years.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert coolly dismissed the commission's report, writing it off as an internal American matter and instructing his cabinet members not to talk about it. Critics in Jerusalem assailed recommended talks with Iran and Syria as detrimental to Israeli security, but the biggest immediate concern was tying a Palestinian peace process to an Iraqi solution.
In 2002, a healthy and forceful Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was an early advocate of U.S. military intervention in Iraq, in private sessions predicting therapeutic qualities throughout the region from deposing Saddam Hussein. More than four years later, the relationship has been reversed by the commission's report. Instead of the Iraqi intervention solving the Israeli question, stabilizing the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is described as essential to an Iraqi solution.
Nothing in the report raised hackles in Jerusalem more than these words: "The United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts." The panel, in effect, urged Bush to abandon allowing a free hand for Olmert to continue Sharon's policy of unilateral imposition of borders for a desiccated Palestinian state.
The day after the Baker-Hamilton report was issued, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel delivered a more robust version of the commission's position in a speech to SAIS (the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University). What makes Hagel unique is his fearlessness in enunciating views other American politicians of both parties keep to themselves.
"In the Middle East, the core of instability and conflict is the underlying Arab-Israeli problem," said Hagel, adding, "Until the United States helps lead a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there will be no prospect for broader Middle East peace and stability." He went further by warning of a "Judeo-Christian/Muslim split" that "would inflame the world."
Colin Powell's departure as secretary of state two years ago eliminated the administration's last major figure who was at all serious about the peace process. Bush has been seen by his Arab allies as letting the junior partner in the U.S.-Israeli alliance dominate the senior partner. One Middle Eastern diplomat says Bush, in dealing with Israel, acts as though he represents Luxembourg rather than the United States.
Consequently, if Bush really meant it when he said, "I do, too," it would entail a radical change in policy that would engender severe opposition. The Baker-Hamilton report and Hagel's speech each reiterated the truth that there is no chance whatsoever for essential Israeli-Palestinian peace without American brokerage. The Israeli ruling class and its U.S. outriders do not want that to happen, which explains the bitter opposition to the commission's recommendations. It would be an act of courage for George W. Bush to risk an assault from these forces, and it is a central decision of his last two years.