Ideology, not nuances

Shmuel Rosner

Haaretz

Elul 20, 5765

WASHINGTON - In 1965 in Gettysburg, Virginia, Jewish businessman Max Fisher met Dwight D. Eisenhower to award the general and former president a medal on behalf of the Jewish community for his part in the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of the concentration camps. But then Eisenhower surprised Fisher by saying, "You know, Max, looking back at Suez, I regret what I did. I never should have pressured Israel to evacuate the Sinai."

This well-known story about Fisher comes from his fascinating biography, "Quiet Diplomat," in which the author, Peter Golden, writes that this encounter changed Fisher's life. "If I had a Jewish adviser working for me," Eisenhower went on, "I doubt I would have handled the situation the same way." Fisher took off from that point, spending many years advising presidents and prime ministers even Israeli ones. Fisher needed Eisenhower to get him started, and Fisher was needed to establish the Republican Jewish Coalition, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on Wednesday. A long line of people waited at the entrance to the venue in Washington.

"What a crowd," one participant said, half-surprised. "That's the way it is when the president comes," another responded. And, in fact, President George W. Bush was on hand. There were cheers, a speech and handshakes all around. Bush called Max Fisher who died earlier this year at 96 "a patriotic American, a friend of Israel and a champion for peace," sparking another round of cheers.

It is interesting to listen to Bush at such events. Unexpected statements come out, like the one about the burning by Palestinians of the synagogues in Gaza. After all, the State Department, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, expressed no special sympathy with Israel's anger over these acts. On the contrary: They were angry with Israel for leaving the buildings to the Palestinians instead of demolishing them, and then for complaining when the Palestinians destroyed them. But Bush, as one Israeli diplomat put it this week, "is not an official who sees nuances. He is an ideologue."

And the ideologue went far with his statements this week. In a eulogy to Simon Wiesenthal, Bush said the Nazi-hunter had "insisted we remember that hatred prepares the way for violence and the failure to expose and confront intolerance can lead to atrocities beyond imagining. As we saw in the recent desecration of the synagogues in Gaza, the ancient hatred of anti-Semitism still burns in people's hearts."

This comparison is amazing, and especially difficult to place in the context of the administration Bush heads. If this is what the president believes, how is it possible that officials respond so differently? And is it possible that there are other places down the road in which essential differences of opinion will be revealed between the president and those who carry out his policies?

"Perhaps," an Israeli official said hopefully, "this is also what will happen with
Hamas."

Hamas and the Quartet
At the beginning of the week, the Quartet convened for a discussion of Gaza. The discussion, as defined by the assistant secretary of state, David Welsch, was lively. The participation of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority's political life was discussed a grenade that had its pin pulled out by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he announced that Israel would not allow Hamas to participate in elections in the West Bank.

The statements following the Quartet's meeting were not music to Israel's ears, and confirmed what had been revealed earlier, in closed meetings: that the foursome is uncomfortable with Israel's stance. The representatives agree in principle that Hamas should not take part in the political process, but they see no use in presenting conditions that the PA will not meet and that will only increase the movement's strength.

This was the hottest topic of the week for those involved in Israel-Palestinian affairs. Congressional representatives who met with King Abdullah II of Jordan asked him what he thought about it. A former senior official in the Clinton administration discussed it with an Israeli diplomat; on Wednesday, Welsch and Middle East security coordinator General William Ward squirmed under the cross-fire of questions concerning the matter at the hearing of a subcommittee of the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee.

Welsch was hoarse at the hearing; he had a cold. So at some points he sounded desperate, even when he tried to accentuate the positive: There is international accord on what is needed a disarmed Hamas that is not part of the political game. Welsch believes this is an achievement.

But, as Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York told him, considering the PA never delivers the goods, what was their plan? Two hours later, the committee produced a kind of consensus: The administration's replies are unsatisfactory. That is all it could do to protest.

Israel was somewhat taken aback by Ward's announcement that at the beginning of October, he will be leaving his job. He had dipped his hands in the Middle East conflict, and was now moving on to his next posting. All attempts by the State Department to have him stay on were unsuccessful. Ward, it is said, will not hear of it. He apparently really is a smart general.

Ward may have raised compartmentalization to a higher art. If in the army it is said everything is divided into three parts, Ward divides them into five. Here are the five reasons he gave for the success of disengagement: The behavior of the Israel Defense Forces, the political agreements in the PA, Israeli-Palestinian coordination, the behavior of the Palestinian forces, and Egyptian and international assistance. And five elements still need to be part of the Palestinians' security reforms: putting together a Palestinian security strategy, deploying the security forces, disarming the militias and adjusting their size to security needs, and strengthening the interior ministry. Ward won't be working on this, of course. His replacement will be.

Not the time
On Tuesday afternoon, the aides to the members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security are drowning in work. Meetings are being shortened, apologies made. The committee has a major task ahead, a major responsibility: the rehabilitation of the disaster areas in Louisiana and Mississippi, with cracks of disagreement already showing up despite the unity of purpose.
Some want to see tax reductions for businesses reopening in the Mexican Gulf, which others see as another attempt by Bush to advance his political beliefs. Some support financial aid to stricken families who want to send their children to private schools (usually religious ones); others see this step as the realization of Christian evangelical goals via the back door. Some are in favor of channeling many millions of dollars to rebuilding New Orleans, and others see the Bush administration going on an unbridled spending spree.

Hurricane Rita is now threatening, with pictures of refugees and rescuers once again filling the TV screen. At a time like this, one aide asked a senator on the committee, do you think Israel will really insist on asking for funding for the disengagement? Not that the senator can oppose it, he says because "that would be political suicide." Perhaps Israel will give up of its own accord?

Jerusalem's official response: "Israel is not dealing with this." Alon Ushpiz, the Israeli embassy's man on Capitol Hill, says in response that now is not the time, and it is unclear when the time will be. In any case, no additional funds are on the horizon, even if a budgetary platform existed for providing more money to Israel. In any case, Israel will not try to "hitch a ride" on additional budgets for Hurricane Katrina.

Dialogue, please
Is the time ripe for renewed strategic dialogue between Israel and the United States? Israel believes it certainly is, and the question is what the Americans believe. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's request for such talks, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon successfully pushed for during his previous term in office, has been turned down a number of times. But it is now on the table again. Nicholas Burns, No. 3 at the State Department, met yesterday with the director general of the Foreign Ministry, Ron Prosor, and the subject was among those discussed.

Prosor is right when he says the dialogue has been on hold for two years, and it is essential to renew it. After responsibility for it was transferred from then-minister Dan Meridor to his successor Uzi Landau and then to his successor Tzachi Hanegbi, the Americans simply lost interest. The renewal of talks might require Sharon to find someone else for the job.