Israel's supporters have had it with George Bush. Pointing to a sequence of hostile acts - his awful remarks at a press conference last September 12th, Secretary of State James Baker's inane vulgarisms, the sleazy leak about arms transfers to China, the State Department's incredible endorsement of a Palestinian right of return - Americans who care about Israel overwhelmingly agree that Bush is bad for Israel. But a cool assessment of the record shows that they are wrong.
For starters, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker closed down the dialogue with the PLO. They expanded the peace process from just Israel and the Palestinians to include no less than eleven Arab states.
More: Baker spent months getting the Arabs to accept a peace process on Israeli terms. Its points of reference contain nothing about land for peace or Jerusalem. Palestinians do not comprise a separate delegation. The process excludes the PLO, Palestinian expatriates, and Jerusalem residents. Europeans and the United Nations have no real role, nor does the U.S. government get directly involved unless invited in by all parties.
The American-sponsored peace process virtually eliminates the prospect of war, at least in the short term. As a result of this and other Bush Administration efforts - most notably Operation Desert Storm, which destroyed Iraq's offensive capabilities - Israel faces the least threat of war in its forty-four-year history. Further, Bush achieved what Ronald Reagan never attempted - he got the United Nations to rescind its 1975 "Zionism is Racism" resolution. His administration played a critical role in springing Ethiopian and Syrian Jews. However cool the Bush words toward Israel, the acts are warm.
Of course, there's one cool act: the denial of a $10 billion loan guarantee for Israeli housing. But this issue, which so badly riled U.S.-Israel relations, needs to be seen in perspective:
- The administration supports an unconditional $3 billion a year in aid to Israel, much the largest per capita aid to any country. Last year it backed a $400 million supplement for housing purposes and $650 million in cash for damages suffered during the Gulf War.
- Washington did not refuse to make the loan guarantee, but made it conditional on a cessation of new settlement activities in the West Bank; the Shamir government chose to reject these terms. In the end, Israelis rejected American terms, and not the reverse.
- Doing without loan guarantee may serve Israel's long-term interests. The country needs growth, not aid. Dependence on handouts stymies growth by allowing politicians to defer hard decisions. Not getting the loan guarantees compels the Israeli government to get serious about privatization; major corporations -the telephone exchange, chemical manufacturer, shipping line - are on the block.
- Making sure Israel survives has always been the central issue in U.S.-Israel relations; from this perspective, loan guarantees appear peripheral. It hardly compares with U.S.-Israel tensions of years past (Eisenhower forcing Israel out of Sinai, Ford denying delivery of fighter planes, and Carter ignoring Egyptian treaty violations).
Looked at as a whole, the U.S.-Israel relationship is the family relationship of international politics. American politicians who reiterate their understanding of Israel's plight quickly get known as friends of Israel. Secretary of State George Shultz, for example, clearly established his concern for Israel's long-term security. Most memorably, he once asked a large audience of Israel's supporters if the PLO was qualified to enter negotiations with Israel. "No," it boomed back. Shultz answered: "Hell, no! Let's try that on for size. PLO?" "Hell, no!" the crowd echoed. Not surprisingly, Shultz won the permanent affection of Israel's supporters.
By way of contrast, James Baker never goes beyond the tight-lipped delivery of pro forma statements about Israel. His demeanor types him as indifferent or hostile to the Jewish state.
Stressing a politician's style so heavily has the strange effect of rendering his actions relatively unimportant. In December 1988, when George Shultz took the step friends of Israel most dreaded - opening official U.S. relations with the PLO - they raised hardly a word of protest. His pro-Israel bona fides, in other words, won him enormous freedom of action. Contrarily, the politician who fails to establish a rapport can do nothing right. Baker's turgid approach to Israel and Bush's tin ear condemn them to a purgatory in which they get credit for nothing they do for Israel.
In an unusual acknowledgment of the emotional basis of U.S.-Israel ties, George Bush recently observed: "I have come to believe that the measure of a good relationship is not the ability to agree, but rather the ability to disagree on specifics without placing fundamentals at risk. We do this all the time with Britain; we should manage to do it with Israel." He is right; the time has come to go beyond tone and style to look objectively at facts. If the Bush Administration needs to understand the critical role of feelings in U.S.-Israel relations, Israel's supporters need to wean themselves from emotionalism and recognize a positive record for what it is.