We are slowly leaving the Bush presidency. Can we leave it fast enough for the
safety of the world?
George W. Bush thought it would be a good idea to help Israel celebrate its 60th
birthday. So he showed up to celebrate, in spite of the gross contradiction his
presence there offered against an appearance of impartiality in the
negotiations between Israel and Palestine -- an accord whose success the
president has said he intends to show as the diplomatic legacy of eight years
In his speech to the Knesset, President Bush praised Israel in familiar and
effusive terms. He also threatened Iran almost to the point of implying that
Israel's birthday present from America would be a war against Iran initiated
by the U.S. Finally, and strangely, he went out of his way -- in violation of a
decorum observed by previous American presidents on foreign visits -- to attack
a political rival in the United States.
Senator Biden, Barack Obama, and others were quick to respond to the charge
that talking (not giving things away) to a hostile country must constitute
"appeasement"; but the coat-trailing use of the word, meanwhile, caught the
attention of the press; and Chris Matthews, interviewing a talk radio shouter,
was led to some characteristic rumblings:
"You think it was fair to go overseas and take a shot at a fellow
American?... Why is Israel now the center of the Republican
Campaign?... Why the focus on Israel?.... Why are we turning Israel into Hyde
The questions are pertinent and not easy to answer. Why has Israel become the
place to test an American politician for loyalty and strength? Loyalty to what
and strength about what? Something about the American view of Israel, and his
own exaggerated version of it, made George W. Bush believe he could get away
with the provocative words he used and the graceless choice of an occasion.
In the American mind today, Israel stands for a policy of benign chauvinism,
justified preemptive war, and provisional domination of the Middle East: the
very policy the Bush administration has sought to graft onto the United States,
while borrowing Israeli army rules of engagement for use in Iraq. Doubtless the
unpopular president felt a certain exhilaration and nervous release in cutting
down a member of his family (nationally speaking) in front of another family.
But there was a personal as well as well as a generic reason for it. Probably
Israel today seems to George Bush a friendlier place than most of America does.
It is, to him, a sort of fifty-first state, a good deal like Texas but cleared
of the protesters.
One might end here, merely observing that, not for the first time, George
W. Bush acted below the dignity of his office. Yet his defects were forgiven by
his hosts; and that is not where the interest of the occasion lies.
When an American of such high visibility speaks without inhibition of American
divisions to Israelis, one is made to reflect on the extraordinary censorship
exercised by the American mainstream media against all allusion to the current
political controversies in Israel. For example, the Israeli divisions over the
oppressive treatment of the West Bank Palestinians. The word "appeasement" was
misused by the president; but why should we not use it accurately? Why should
Americans not follow the Israeli opposition, and speak of the appeasement by
successive Israeli governments of the fanatical sects of settlers who seek to
dispossess the Palestinians of their lands?
Condoleezza Rice broke the silence once. On a visit in October 2007, she said
the sufferings of the West Bank Palestinians reminded her of the civil-rights
struggles of American blacks in the South. Indeed, as Idith Zertal and Akiva
Eldar show in Lords of the Land, the more thuggish settlers in cities like
Hebron have enjoyed many of the privileges that Americans associate with white
gangs in the Jim Crow South -- a routine of harassment and ad-hoc violence against
an inferior caste. The Israeli government acts as the federal government of the
United States would have acted if it had said it could not move against the
gangs because "these are our people."
Israel, Munich, and appeasement came up again when John McCain said, of Barack
Obama's willingness to speak with diplomatic representatives of Iran, that one
must never negotiate with anyone who calls Israel a "stinking corpse." But why
should political thought be silenced and action obstructed by the trash talk of
an unleashed opportunist? Demagogues say many things. It is in their nature not to
be in a position to mean everything they say.
Nikita Khrushchev spoke for world communism in direr terms than these when he
addressed to Americans the words: "We will bury you." Khrushchev went beyond
calling his enemy a stinking corpse. He acknowledged that we were still alive,
and said we were going to be turned into a corpse, and declared that he would
be the one to do it. And Khrushchev actually held the levers of power in the
Soviet Union -- something that cannot be said of Ahmadinejad in Iran. Yet
President Eisenhower negotiated with Khrushchev, and President Kennedy
negotiated with him, too. The idea that all contact with a hostile country that
is not war, is therefore necessarily appeasement, is a poisonous offshoot of the
Bush dogma which says "If you are not with us you are against us." Palestinians
oppressed by Israeli settlers and looking anywhere they can for help are
neither with the United States nor against us. If we treat them as enemies,
they may well become enemies.
Another piece of the Bush doctrine -- a piece borrowed from Ariel Sharon, which
John McCain seems poised to inherit -- is the idea that wars always improve the
stature and increase the power of a warrior nation. Six years into the American
occupation of Iraq, this ought to have become questionable. Yet John McCain's
advisers on foreign policy are, to a man, neoconservatives -- supporters of the
Lebanon as of the Iraq war, and disposed to flatter the militarism that is the
most consistent trait of McCain's political temperament.
Israeli opinion covers a far wider range than American neoconservatism. In the
Cooper Union debate on the "Israel Lobby" controversy, in September 2006, the
former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said that the United States had
become a Colossus -- "an intrusive colossus that is hated throughout the Arab
world," because of its support for the Arab autocrats. The solution, Ben-Ami
implied, was not for the U.S. to intrude still further into the affairs of the
Middle East but to change its course and resist the promptings of organizations
like AIPAC. He wondered why so many American lawmakers were intimidated by the
lobby, since the most it could do was to stop someone from getting elected,
and, where a public good was concerned, not to be elected or re-elected might
seem a small sacrifice for a politician whose duty is to tell the truth.