Bush Finally Puts Mideast Policy On Right Track

President George W. Bush has made the most significant shift in U.S. policy since Harry Truman overruled his State Department and supported the establishment of Israel. Now the question is whether he can stay the course against the onslaught of criticism from the Arabs, the UN, and Europe, and the sabotage efforts of State Department Arabists and their acolytes.

President Bush reversed more than a half-century of unsuccessful policies formulated by Arabists that were predicated on the false premise that if the United States pressured Israel to capitulate to Arab demands, then the Arab world would recognize Israel and U.S.-Arab relations would dramatically improve. Though history has demonstrated that the principal obstacle to peace is the refusal of the Arab world in general, and the Palestinian leadership in particular, to accept Israel’s right to exist, and that U.S.-Arab relations have actually grown stronger as the U.S.-Israel alliance has evolved, the Arabists have clung to their erroneous views. The President has now made clear U.S. policy will not be held hostage to Arab demands, and that he will not accept the specious argument that supporting Israel, and standing up for the democratic values our nations share, will damage relations with Arab states.

By supporting Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip and begin to pull out from parts of the West Bank, President Bush has given Israel the backing it needs to take these very risky steps for peace.

In particular, President Bush abandoned the inaccurate claims that settlements are illegal and the obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. He endorsed Sharon’s intention to dismantle most settlements, but retain large Jewish communities. He recognized that “in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

The President aligned American policy with UN Resolution 242. He rejected the Arab/European/State Department notion that Israel must withdraw to the 1949 lines, and reasserted America’s “steadfast commitment to Israel’s security and to preserving and strengthening Israel’s self-defense capability, including its right to defend itself against terror.”

Bush also drove a stake through the heart of the “right of return” issue by stating that the solution to the refugee problem will “need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”

Critics have suggested that by taking these positions President Bush has forfeited America’s role as an “honest broker” and undermined the peace process. On the contrary, all the parties in the region still understand the United States is the only international player that can influence the parties, and remains the sole mediator.

By recognizing realities that others have chosen to ignore, namely, that no Israeli government would ever dismantle cities in the West Bank where tens of thousands of citizens live, that no Israeli leader would ever recognize a “right” for Palestinian refugees to move to Israel, and that no democratically elected Prime Minister would ever withdraw to the 1949 lines, President Bush has forced the Palestinians to abandon longstanding fantasies about what they can expect from negotiations. The Palestinians will also have to give up the hope that the United States or the international community will force Israel to capitulate to their demands.

Predictably, the State Department went into crisis mode and began to water down the President’s commitments within 24 hours of his meeting with Sharon. Secretary of State Colin Powell and others have made statements suggesting the Administration doesn’t support settlements, that the Palestinians must agree to any changes in the borders, and the refugee issue is a matter for negotiations.

Commentators who toe the Arabist line are also cranking out dire warnings that the Middle East will be inflamed because Bush has recognized reality and sided with Israel on the key final status issues. Yes, Arabs will beat their breasts over the U.S. “sellout” of the Palestinians, but we’ve also learned from experience that they don’t really care a fig about the Palestinians, and that the major issues that unite and divide the United States and the Arab states, such as democratic values, oil policy, and radical Islam are unrelated to the West Bank.

In 1988, I wrote in Commentary that Israel should unilaterally withdraw primarily because it was to Israel’s strategic advantage to determine its own borders. I have also believed that Israel would inevitably withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines with modifications for security, and to incorporate the majority of settlers. Now that Sharon has adopted the “Bard Plan,” and it has won the endorsement of President Bush, Israel has the opportunity to establish secure and defensible borders and end its morally, militarily, and economically corrosive involvement in the affairs of the Palestinians.

This does not mean the end of conflict. While it would behoove the Palestinians to cheer the Israeli disengagement, and establish a democratic state that lives in peace with Israel, I have no illusions about their continued determination to destroy Israel. Once Israel has withdrawn behind its security fence, however, the threat will be far less than it is today. And there is still hope that a Sadat will one day emerge from the Palestinian mobocracy and make the psychological leap required to accept Israel.

Now, Israel is in a race against time. Sharon indicated he plans to complete the disengagement by the end of 2005. That is too slow. Given his age, political popularity, and current legal troubles, Sharon may not be in power that long. Bush may also not be around to lend his support to the plan next year, and while Kerry said he completely supported Bush’s position on the Sharon plan, his Middle East policy remains largely unformed. It would be far better for Israel to take advantage of Bush’s support and the cover of an election year to implement the plan in 2004.