As Israel's election season moves into high gear, one key question now emerging is how much is the Bush administration planning to impose itself and its preferences on the Israeli electorate? There are three sides to the question's increasing centrality.
The first is historic. The US has had an unfortunate habit of meddling in Israeli elections ever since the current president's father, George H. W. Bush, played a central role in getting Yitzhak Rabin and his leftist Labor party elected to office in 1992. Back then, Bush pere insinuated himself into the election campaign by abjectly refusing then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's requests to provide Israel with $10 billion in loan guarantees to enable the country to absorb some one million Jews from the former Soviet Union.
In 1996, then US president Bill Clinton and his advisers went one step further. In attempting to secure Shimon Peres's election over Likud challenger Binyamin Netanyahu, Clinton came to Israel and actively campaigned for Peres. Alas for Clinton, Palestinian terrorism proved the decisive factor in bringing Netanyahu over the hump and securing his narrow win over Peres.
In the 1999 elections, when Netanyahu faced off against Labor leader Ehud Barak, Clinton and his associates took no chances. Dispensing with even a fig leaf of propriety, Clinton sent his own election advisers to Israel to manage Barak's entire campaign. Bob Schrum, James Carville and Stanley Greenberg created a campaign for Barak based on fragmenting the Israeli electorate and prevaricating about Barak's agenda.
They were successful. The Israeli electorate catapulted Barak to power.
REFRESHINGLY, in the 2001 and 2003 elections, the current Bush administration refrained by and large from siding with any party. This non-interference in the democratic processes of the Israeli electorate was perhaps the clearest indication of its friendly intentions and respect for the Jewish state. Today that fine tradition of stepping back and allowing the democratic chips to fall where they may seems to have ended. Since Ariel Sharon broke off from the Likud and formed Kadima at the end of November, the administration has made it self-evident that it wants a Kadima victory and is willing to do a great deal to ensure that such a victory comes about. Since Sharon's second stroke two weeks ago, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have made it clear that in Sharon's absence they want Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to form the next government.
WHICH BRINGS us to the second side of US interference in Israeli elections. The notable aspect of this meddling is that when it occurs, the US sides only with the Left. The question is why?
The US accurately believes that its interests would be advanced by the termination of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Once, the US recognized that the conflict stemmed from an Arab refusal to accept Israel's right to exist, and thus could end only when the Arabs lost hope of ever being able to destroy Israel.
The first Bush administration adopted a more aggressive policy toward Israel, maintaining that Israel rather than the Arabs was the source of the problem, and that if Israel could be pressured to appease the Arabs sufficiently the conflict would end. This gradually morphed into a Euro-American cliche: Israeli territorial concessions and the founding of a Palestinian state on areas vacated by Israel will end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The current president entered office three months after the Palestinians launched their terror war against Israel. That war was instigated in direct response to Barak's peace offer to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000 to create a Palestinian state on nearly all of the disputed territories Israel has controlled since 1967. The rejection by the Palestinians of this offer sounded the death knell for the Bush-Clinton appeasement policy willingly advanced by the leftist Israeli governments the US was largely responsible for bringing to power. Sadly, although reality bore out the failure of appeasement and the truth that the establishment of a Palestinian state was not the end goal of the PLO, the State Department refused to let the facts disabuse it of its institutional belief that appeasement works. Since the current Bush administration adopted the Quartet's road map plan for Middle East peace and then rammed it down Israel's throat in May 2003, the Americans have officially readopted Israeli appeasement of the Palestinians as the centerpiece of their policy toward the Jewish state. In the weak, dependent Sharon, the White House found a willing Israeli partner in the advancement of its renewed agenda.
THE QUESTION the White House should ask itself today is what exactly it stands to gain from continuing to advance this agenda. Is Israeli appeasement really the best way to advance the US interest of ending the Arab world's conflict with Israel? What recent history has shown is that the opposite is the case. As the rise of Hamas and the fragmentation of Fatah into warring terrorist gangs in the wake of Israel's retreat from Gaza and northern Samaria - like the enhanced popularity of Hizbullah in Lebanon since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 - shows, Israeli appeasement of Palestinians and other Arab terror groups strengthens the Arab view that it is possible to destroy Israel. As that view gains strength, the Arabs' enthusiasm for the prolongation and widening of the conflict with Israel grows. And so, rather than rendering the conflict more solvable, Israeli appeasement of the Palestinians tends to exacerbate it. So too, Palestinian behavior since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 illustrates clearly that the central goal of the appeasement strategy - the establishment of a Palestinian state - is not an aim the Palestinians share. The Palestinians have taken the billions of dollars of international aid showered upon them and diverted them to the building up of terror militias. Given a de facto state in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority has insisted on finding ways to deny its own sovereign independence and international responsibilities.
AND SO to the third side of the US policy. The result of Israeli land transfers to the Palestinians has been the transformation of those areas into bases for international terror organizations. Israeli military and intelligence sources, like the Palestinians themselves, have been absolutely clear that in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza al-Qaida operatives have set up shop in the area, joining Hizbullah and other terrorist forces already present. New weaponry has been smuggled in and training bases established.
In pushing for Israeli appeasement of the Palestinians, then, the US is aggressively pursuing the establishment of new bases of international terrorism, supported and, indeed, funded by the US. That is, the US policy of supporting Israeli appeasement and pressuring for further Israeli land handovers to the Palestinians stands in complete contradiction to President Bush's policy for waging the US-led war on international terrorism, which - in every place except Israel - works to deny bases to terrorists and undermine regimes that sponsor and support terrorism.
TO DATE, by ostentatiously inviting Ehud Olmert to Washington ahead of the general elections, the Bush administration has made clear that it hopes to see him form the next government. By pressuring Israel to allow Arab residents of its capital city to vote in the Palestinian elections next week - notwithstanding Hamas's participation in the elections and a Fatah slate dominated by terrorists and led by convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti - the Bush administration has made clear that it supports maximalist Palestinian territorial demands regarding Jerusalem and backs a Palestinian proto-state governed and dominated by active terrorist groups. As Israelis ask just how far the Bush administration is planning to go in making itself an actor in our electoral process, the White House would be well advised to ask itself some hard questions of its own. It could start with this one: What American interest is served by the exacerbation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of operational bases for international terrorism in the Middle East?