Bush Mideast Doctrine Seen As ‘Disaster’ For Israel
Emerging critique from pro-Israel analysts hits administration for helping Islamists to power via elections.
President Bush, in the view of many Jews, is the most pro-Israel president ever, and the reasons why are not hard to grasp.
Bush is, after all, the president who allowed Israel free rein to imprison and isolate the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, and to pursue terrorists throughout the West Bank with few restraints. Breaking with some 40 years of American diplomacy, he lent U.S. support for Israel to retain major West Bank settlements in a final agreement with the Palestinians. He protected Israel from international pressures on innumerable occasions. And he led the fight to isolate the Hamas government elected by the Palestinians earlier this year.
Most recently, of course, Bush also backed Israel in its military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon despite a rising chorus of international protest over the resulting widespread destruction. He even rushed Israel precision guided missiles for the conflict upon request.
Despite all this, there is a sharp, newly emerging critique of Bush in some pro-Israel quarters.
The critics — none of whom fault Bush’s intentions — deplore the Bush administration’s broader Middle East policies as a catastrophe for Israel’s security interests in the region. In particular, Bush’s drive to “democratize” the Middle East, from Iraq to Palestine and Egypt to Lebanon, say these critics, has empowered Iran and Sunni Islamists as never before, leaving Israel gravely endangered on multiple fronts from foes opposed not to its policies but to its existence.
“Bush’s democratic reform program for the Middle East has been a disaster for Israel and for moderate forces in the region,” declared ex-Mossad analyst Yossi Alpher, one of the boldest of these critics.
Alpher, who also headed the Jaffe Center of Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, cited the Bush administration’s insistence on parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority last January, and the inclusion of Hamas in those elections despite Israel’s pleas — and despite Hamas’ refusal to disarm its militia. Bush also strongly backed the Lebanon elections of spring 2005 that brought the radical Shiite group Hezbollah into government for the first time despite its refusal to disarm as well, Alpher noted.
As a result, he said, “We’ve ended up with militant Islamists on two fronts.”
“I’m all for democracy in the Middle East,” said Alpher. “But democracy does not begin and end with elections. This is the American concept. Allowing parties with their own private armies to run is a gross violation of democracy. Yet the administration didn’t just allow it; they encouraged it.”
Others faulted Bush for pressuring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to allow more competitive elections for Egypt’s parliament last year. Those elections, monitored for the first time by international inspectors at U.S. insistence, resulted in an unprecedented increase in legislators affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a formally outlawed Islamist group.
“It may be that Bush has created a Middle East much more difficult for Israel to live in,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior scholar at the dovish Israel Policy Forum and another critic.
Alpher, Cohen and others singled out Bush’s drive to democratize Iraq as the single most dangerous legacy of his tenure to date from the perspective of Israel’s security. “It’s a gift to Iran,” Alpher said, referring to the resulting empowerment of Shiite political and militia groups close to Tehran. “Bush singles out Iran as the center of the Axis of Evil. But Bush has done more to increase Iran’s clout than any other force.”
Israel fears Iran as its most dangerous foe due to its wealth and size, its alleged drive to acquire nuclear weapons and the open support of its president for Israel’s liquidation. But the United States’ 2003 overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has yielded a surge of radical Shiite Islamist empowerment stretching potentially from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut, said the critics.
To be sure, there are dissenters to this view. But they do not run along traditional political fault lines. Shoshana Bryen, special projects director of the hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, derides such criticism as a kind of “conspiracy-ism that says the United States can control all this. It can’t.”
Whether in the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Egypt or Iraq, she stressed, the Bush administration lacked the power to instigate the elections in question, as charged by the critics, or to stop the push for them, which was internal.
But the equally hawkish Daniel Pipes agrees with much of the critique.
“The urgency with which Bush has pushed democratization has created a unique opportunity for the Islamists — who are everywhere the most organized and most ideologically coherent force — to take advantage,” said Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
According to Pipes, Bush “has been a radical, almost a revolutionary on Middle East issues, starting with pre-emption in Iraq [and] replacing stability with democratization.
“Israelis were not eager for the Iraq war,” asserted Pipes, “and they’ve been watching as their most fervent enemies come to power. I agree, it’s a very mixed picture.”
Pipes argued that Bush also compromised Israel’s security interests by becoming “the first president to call for a Palestinian state — and the president who allowed Hamas to come to power.”
By contrast, Alpher, an early proponent of the Middle East peace process, faulted the Bush administration’s “neglect of the Palestinian issue” in terms of the kind of active mediation in which its predecessors engaged.
“That’s a more controversial point,” he acknowledged. “But I don’t think there is anything controversial about the democratic reform issue. [In terms of Israel’s security interests] that’s all bad.”
This week, the impact of Bush’s invasion of Iraq on Israel’s security moved into the arena of electoral politics as an issue. The decision of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to run as an independent after losing his primary race to Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, has put the question at the center of their general election campaign.
Lieberman has touted the war as part of the broader U.S. struggle against terror and as central to the defeat of Israel’s worst enemies. But in a recently released position paper, Lamont blasted as “tragically naïve” the administration’s early claim “that one consequence of the Iraq war would be to create a cascade of democracies in the region that would promote peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
The war, said Lamont, “has left us bogged down . . . with little respect and no credibility,” and at the cost of “a far more important matter: achieving a peaceful settlement of disputes between Israel and its neighbors.”
Bryen of JINSA noted that Israel, too, supported the Iraq war when it was launched, based on the same wrong assessment that the Bush administration held then: that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could threaten it.
“Maybe the result now is not what Israel wants. But it should not be construed as anything other than a policy they agreed on in the beginning,” she said.
But Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, said that Israeli support, whether hot or lukewarm, never meant support for the democratization passion of Bush or his neo-conservative supporters.
“When Israelis debated the possibility of war with Iraq, they said it was good to remove Saddam,” he explained. “But democratizing Iraq? Most said that’s not feasible [and that] the U.S. would be bogged down for years. … Most Israelis don’t believe you can transform the Middle East into a Western-type democracy.”
Joshua Murvachik, one of the neoconservatives’ ideological founding fathers of the movement for international democratic reform, doubted the validity of such pessimism. But he acknowledged that concerns about the effect of democratization on Israel’s regional security were “totally fair game.”
“I know when Bush first unveiled his democratization program, many Israelis were unhappy,” he said. “They said, you don’t know Arabs like we do. I disagree with their criticisms. But I don’t think they’re outlandish or absurd.”