President Bush’s decision to advance the Road Map to Middle East Peace with his re-election campaign looming demonstrates no small amount of courage. Traditionally, presidents avoid even the mildest suggestion of pressuring Israel except in the first year or two of their terms. After that, until safely re-elected, they avoid the Middle East like the plague.The reasons for this timidity are obvious. The very idea of proposing a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is treated by many in the pro-Israel community as tantamount to opposing Israel. Those of us in Washington (I worked on Capitol Hill for 15 years) are particularly accustomed to a way of thinking in which support for the status quo—i.e., erecting roadblocks to thwart the peace process—is considered “pro-Israel,” while offering ideas on how Israel can achieve both peace and security through territorial compromise is considered politically crazy and fundamentally “anti-Israel.”
Any senator or representative who consistently supports resolutions praising Israeli policies and bashing Palestinians—without offering any realistic proposal to achieve peace—is hailed as a stalwart friend of Israel. No matter if the legislator in question devotes not five minutes of his year to thinking about Israel’s situation. All he needs is a legislative assistant who puts him on the “right” resolutions, and he will be a hero to pro-Israel activists. But those who strongly support U.S. efforts to promote an agreement, who give serious attention to Israel’s plight and how to remedy it, become known as “weak on Israel” or “not a friend.” That, as every House and Senate member knows, is not good for one’s political health.
Of course, that is how the Washington power game works. The only difference is that, for some of us, the survival of the state of Israel, a state whose existence many of us regard as miraculous, is simply too important to become part of Washington games.
And it is a Washington game. After all, it isn’t played in Israel.
In Israel, Right, Left, and center openly fight for or against government policies. Newspapers and other media outlets do not fear being criticized as anti-Israel. There is no CAMERA (Committee for Middle East Accuracy) monitoring the Israeli media to make sure it toes what it calls a pro-Israel line but what is actually the anti-peace line.
Of course, by definition, Israelis cannot be called “anti-Israel,” especially by American Jews. It is their lives that are on the line. Virtually all of them—male and female, hawk and dove—serve or have served in the Israeli military. And, according to the polls, some 68 percent of them want out of the occupied territories in exchange for peace.
Here in America, the lack of dissent about what is right for Israel could ultimately give Israel’s own democracy a bad name. Our Congress tiptoes around the subject, treating all policies of the Israeli government with a respect bordering on reverence. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, knows no such restraints. Prime Ministers are called liars, traitors, sellouts, and thugs. Knesset members call each other, or Israeli policies they oppose, Fascist, Bolshevik, or worse. But let some undergraduate or teaching assistant at Dartmouth or the University of Michigan mouth off about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and that is something else. As for a member of Congress, forget about it!
The irony, of course, is that the best favor anyone can do for Israel is to help it get back to negotiations. That is because the safest and most prosperous period in Israel’s history was when the Oslo peace process was in effect. Its worst period ever has been the 32 months since Oslo’s collapse. One would never know that from the official pronouncements of most of the organizations claiming to speak for American Jews. They routinely label the Oslo period disastrous for Israel, ignoring the facts—facts that tell an entirely different story.
Although Oslo took almost four years for full implementation, it had largely succeeded by the fall of 1997. By then, with the assistance of the CIA, Israeli-Palestinian security co-operation had essentially eliminated terrorism. In fact, between September 1997 and the collapse of Oslo in the late fall of 2000, just seven people were killed by terrorists in Israel. This was not because Hamas and Islamic Jihad did not try to launch attacks; it is because the Palestinian Authority engaged in a virtual civil war with the terrorists to thwart those attacks and tipped the Israelis off in advance of them.
As a result, Israel, in the period just prior to Oslo’s end, was safer than at any period in its history. Tourism was at an all-time high. Unemployment was remarkably low. The economy was bursting with foreign investment. And the international community, including Arab states, was building economic and diplomatic links to the Jewish state.
Comparing today’s situation to the Oslo period is almost gratuitous. Deaths from acts of terror since the collapse of Oslo have reached 787 in 32 months (versus those seven in the previous three years). The economy is so bad that Israel is seeking loan guarantees from the United States to help stave off disaster. Unemployment is at 11 percent. Foreign investment has dried up. The tourist industry has collapsed. Jerusalem, which had blossomed during the Oslo years, has a depressed feel and look that is reminiscent of the pre-1967 period, when it was a divided city. (In fact, it is almost as divided today as it was then, with few Israelis venturing into the Arab areas and vice versa.) In short, the last 32 months have been disastrous for Israel.
As of this writing, one glimmer of hope remains. It is President Bush’s road map for Middle East peace. The road map was drafted by the so-called Quartet (the United States, European Union, Russia, and United Nations) but, once embraced by Bush, it became his. In point of fact, the Quartet’s draft was designed to implement Bush’s vision for Mideast peace as enunciated in Bush’s major speech of June 24, 2002, in which he stated that the United States’s goal is “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”
The road map was designed to avoid the pitfalls of earlier U.S. efforts, such as the plans drafted by former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) and CIA Director George Tenet. Both those attempts to achieve peace floundered when Prime Minister Sharon declared that Israel would not fulfill its obligations until the Palestinians fulfilled theirs. The Palestinians said the opposite.The Bush road map gets around this problem by dumping sequential compliance in favor of parallel moves that happen concurrently. Palestinians must end anti-Israel violence, while at the same time Israelis must pull back from areas reoccupied during the intifada and freeze settlements. Instead of waiting for Sharon to deem Palestinian efforts to combat terror sufficient for a reciprocal measure, the sponsors of the road map assume that role for themselves (and specifically for the United States). Neither side can refuse to meet its obligations by claiming that the other has not acted.
As for Phase 2 of the road map, the establishment of a provisional and, ultimately, a permanent Palestinian state in a few years, these steps will only occur if the two sides remain in full compliance with the road map’s provisions at each stage of the way. There is no prescribed solution. The plan is entirely “performance driven.” If one or the other side fails to perform, the road map will be tossed in the back seat and forgotten, and it is the United States that will determine who is or is not performing.The bottom line is that Israel has nothing to fear from the road map. On the contrary, it is the only available way out of the horrific status quo for both sides. It will succeed if President Bush sticks to his guns. But will he?
One can only hope. But no one should doubt the opposition Bush will face if he persists. So far, the signs look good. And, as those who opposed his tax cuts and the war with Iraq know, this president is nigh unstoppable when he believes in the cause. His cause this time is the long-term survival of Israel and, of course, America’s interests in the Muslim world. My guess is that Bush will stay the course. If he does, he will help redefine just what is considered pro-Israel and what will be understood as perpetuating a status quo that is disastrous for Israel, for the Palestinians, and for our own country.
M.J. Rosenberg, Director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum, is a long time Capitol Hill staffer and former editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report.