Here's the conventional wisdom, stated at a sadly conventional Israeli news event: "With respect to Israel, [George W.] Bush has been one of the best presidents we have ever had."
The speaker was James Tisch, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The venue was Jerusalem's Keren Hayesod Street on the blustering morning of February 22, moments after a suicide bomb shredded a bus and its riders. When the bomb went off, Tisch and other establishment Jewish American leaders were inside a luxury hotel a few hundred yards away, in a briefing with Israel's military chief of staff. They headed out to see the grisly scene and were buttonholed by a reporter for commentary.
And here's a more expert analysis of the American president's performance. "There is a major gap between the perception that Bush has been good for Israel and the reality of Israel's terrible circumstances," says Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and veteran of Middle East diplomacy. On the phone from Washington to Jerusalem, Indyk chooses his words with a diplomat's care, but he is absolutely clear about his message: By repeatedly evading diplomatic opportunities to end Israeli-Palestinian violence, Bush has committed "an abrogation of America's responsibility to its ally Israel." In the long term, "Israel can't survive without peace ... and Israel can't achieve peace without the active involvement of the American president," Indyk says, adding forcefully, "Bush wasn't prepared to do that."
Indyk, now at the Brookings Institution, is not alone in that view. Diplomatic experts in the United States and Israel, while not making endorsements for November, point to an all-too-familiar gulf between Bush's rhetoric and his actions. Yes, the president has maintained the traditional U.S. alliance with Israel; he has spoken firmly in support of the Jewish state; he has kept his door open to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But when it comes to helping Israel solve its central, existential problem -- containing and ending the conflict with the Palestinians -- the Bush administration has failed to use America's position as the only possible mediator.
As Indyk bluntly puts it, "People who say Bush has been a great friend of Israel have to explain how come, after four years of [a] Bush administration, Israel is in the worst shape it's been for decades." And from the uncomfortable vantage point of Jerusalem, I would add that those who support Bush should ask themselves where four more years of Bush will leave Israel.
This is important because at least some Jewish American voters have been turning toward Bush since his election in 2000. The American Jewish Committee's annual survey of Jewish opinion, published in January, found that in a John Kerry-George W. Bush match, Bush would get 31 percent of the Jewish vote and Kerry 59 percent. This compares with just 24 percent of the committee's 1,000 Jewish survey respondents who say they voted for Bush in 2000; others have estimated Jewish support for Bush last time at 19 percent. As the committee noted when releasing the current figures, "Winning 31 percent of the Jewish vote would make President Bush the most popular Republican presidential candidate with Jews since Ronald Reagan won a second term in 1984." It would also give Bush a better chance in the election because Jews traditionally turn out in high numbers -- by one estimate, they make up 4 percent of U.S. voters, twice their weight in the population, and are concentrated in states that can swing the Electoral College. Jews are also known as major donors to Democratic campaigns, support Democrats can hardly afford to lose.
But Jews who favor Bush for his Israel policy should look more closely at his record. Some 900 Israelis -- civilians and soldiers -- and foreigners have died in Palestinian attacks since Bush swore his oath of office. That's more than 10 times the fatalities in the previous three years, including the first months of the al-Aqsa Intifada. In Jerusalem, the chorus of ambulance sirens after a bombing has become a terrifyingly normal part of life. At my son's small high school, three 10th-graders out of about 60 have lost one of their parents in recent terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the intifada has also crippled Israel's economy, leading to huge cutbacks in education and social services. Israelis are poorer than before it began, and young people are questioning their future here.
Indeed, argues Aaron David Miller, the American ex-diplomat who advised the last six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, the unresolved conflict is undermining "Israel's viability as [a] democratic, Jewish state" -- and therefore also undermining the "value affinity" cementing Israel's alliance with the United States. In the starkest terms, peace is a strategic necessity for Israel. And for the United States, Miller stresses, Israeli-Arab peace is an almost unique foreign-policy issue where "our national interest, our moral interest, and our capacity to make a bad situation better all coincide."
So how does Bush's Israeli policy look in light of these interests? One of his primary decisions has been to foster an unusually tight relationship with Sharon. "Bush has helped Sharon more than any other [U.S.] president has helped an Israeli prime minister in recent times," notes Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry. Such an alliance may be "a political asset of the first order" for Sharon in Israel, as Liel notes, and it may buff Bush's pro-Israel image at home. But it hasn't advanced either American or Israeli interests in resolving the conflict. Still, losing the role of mediator doesn't seem to matter to the administration. As Liel puts it, "Bush's drive on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is almost nonexistent."
The administration has also expressed support for Israel at international forums, following the pattern of U.S. foreign policy. But, says Indyk, "Bush has done nothing effective to help Israel end the intifada. There were multiple occasions in which effective presidential intervention to ... restart the peace process would have done much more to help Israel then a veto in the [United Nations] Security Council."
Indeed, the administration has abandoned all of its short-lived diplomatic efforts. In June 2001, following a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub, Bush sent CIA Director George Tenet to the region. Tenet came up with a cease-fire plan, but no serious diplomatic push was made to implement it. The next winter, General Anthony Zinni made sporadic negotiating forays. Secretary of State Colin Powell "said Zinni ... would stay till he got an agreement," Indyk says. "At the first sign of terrorism, he came home."
The clearest example of Bush's failure, experts say, came after the Iraq War, when the president presented his road map for peace and the Palestinian Authority met U.S. demands for new leadership by appointing the moderate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as prime minister. "This was a potential Palestinian [Anwar] Sadat," who told people "in Arabic about how bad terrorism was," Indyk says. Bush held a summit with Sharon and Abbas in Aqaba, Jordan, invited Abbas to Washington -- and then dropped out. He offered Abbas paltry economic aid and did nothing to pressure Sharon to show Palestinians that embracing the moderate Abbas could improve their lives. (It's almost grotesquely ironic that Sharon is now talking about evacuating Gaza Strip settlements unilaterally: Had he negotiated just such a pullout last summer, he could have shown the Palestinian public that moderation pays major dividends. Instead, Abbas was pushed out of office by September, and the road map was effectively dead.)
"President Bush gives great Middle East speeches," says Indyk. "He says all the right things. The problem is in the implementation."
Is there a better model? Israeli strategic expert Yossi Alpher cites Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy in the 1970s -- when an emissary who clearly spoke in the president's name stayed in the region for weeks on end -- and of Jimmy Carter's personal mission to the Mideast during the Israeli-Egyptian peace process.
Alpher says one Democratic senator asked him what the party's nominee should say on the Mideast. Don't make Howard Dean's mistake of pledging to be "evenhanded," Alpher answered. Instead, the candidate should stress his tie to Israel and his commitment to sending to the Mideast a very senior emissary with a mandate to speak in his name.
By chance or not, John Kerry has reportedly done just that. Before the New Hampshire primary, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz quoted him as saying that as president, he would send Carter or Bill Clinton to the region as his envoy.
It's a message that Democrats should push this year. Despite conventional wisdom, a Jewish shift to Bush isn't inevitable. Bush has squandered the chance to help Israel reach peace, and Democrats must -- and can -- offer an alternative.