Settlements or Florida?

Back in the autumn of 2002, a senior Arab diplomat told me confidently that United States President George W. Bush had made a solemn commitment to the moderate Arab states: after the war in Iraq, and on condition that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is pushed aside in favor of a Palestinian whose hands are not tainted by terrorism, the US will deliver on a peace process, as encompassed in the roadmap, even if this means exercising pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make concessions.

Washington’s Middle East stance has been radically transformed since then. The US has conquered Iraq and served notice on Syria. It is withdrawing its military from Saudi Arabia and offering the region a free trade arrangement. And it has delivered the roadmap. Senior administration officials proclaim that the strategic circumstances have been altered, and that the president is now genuinely committed to implementing a two state solution, provided that Arafat is out and Palestinian terrorism ends.

The president’s logic last autumn was based on the assumption that the conquest and long-term occupation of Iraq would make life extremely uncomfortable for moderate local regimes. Hence the need to compensate them; Washington believed it could balance the negative effects of the US presence by energizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

During the course of the countdown to war in Iraq a new incentive was added, when the administration pointedly committed to the roadmap as a means of bolstering leaders like Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair whose assistance to the US in Iraq was unpopular at home. Finally, Bush has emerged from the conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq with his prestige and popularity so high, that he can afford to risk a little of it on a dangerous but important venture.

But keep in mind the president’s key condition: no Arafat. Even before Israelis elected Ariel Sharon back in early 2001, Bush’s incoming administration had registered its refusal to repeat what it perceived to be a major mistake made by President Clinton: risking US prestige in trying to do a deal with a Palestinian leader who could not be relied on to keep agreements and to cease supporting terrorist violence.

Thus assuming the administration really is committed to making the roadmap work, the Arafat factor is by definition one major potential cause for a possible decision, when the going gets rough, to back off from the kind of messy involvement that will be required. Palestinians may argue that the policies of PM Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are really not different from those of Arafat. And the other three members of the Quartet can make a powerful case in favor of working with both Arafat and Abu Mazen. But in American (and Israeli) eyes these are two very different leaders: one supports terrorist violence through cunning and manipulation of funds; the other does not. One is not credible; the other is.

The second potential cause for a possible administration decision to reconsider is US domestic politics. Bush wants to win reelection in November 2004 and to help reelect a Republican Congress. He has to be considerate of the views of his constituents regarding an Israeli-Palestinian compromise process. Two vital groups of Americans upon whom he is depending for votes and campaign contributions and whose leaders for the most part support a very pro-Israel and anti-Arab position are the evangelical Christians and much of the organized Jewish community. That they have begun to make common cause against those in Washington who would pressure Israel over its disastrous settlements policy is a disturbing development in American Jewish politics.

The Christian right is likely to stick with Bush no matter what he does in the Middle East, because it has no alternative: it won’t switch its votes to the Democrats, who support abortion rights, separation of church and state and other positions the evangelicals consider abominations.

The American Jewish community, on the other hand, has an alternative. In fact it is liberal on Israeli issues and traditionally votes Democrat. But its leaders always support the positions of the serving government of Israel. This gives PM Sharon a vital additional lever of influence over the administration’s policies regarding Israel; he is adept at using it.

In the aftermath of Iraq, Bush leads in the opinion polls by a huge margin, and elections are 18 months away. He can for the moment ignore the protests of Jewish and evangelical leaders. He could even risk staring down Sharon regarding some of the latter’s initial roadmap obligations. This gives the interested parties a vital window of opportunity. The other Quartet members should recognize that keeping Washington committed to the process for as long as possible is more important than their activities in Ramallah and Jerusalem.

But the window is almost certain to close in six or at most ten months, when Bush’s domestic advisers sit him down and tell him that he needs to win Florida fair and square this time, hence needs the Jewish vote and evangelical money there, and that in order to get them he should avoid pressuring Sharon, even if this means abandoning the roadmap until after elections.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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