If there's a lot of agreement on anything this election year, it's that friends of Israel should not vote to re-elect George Bush. The mere mention of his name in Jewish circles evinces strong disappointment, even anger.
I shall argue that this reaction is unjustified. While there have been tensions over the past four years, a close review of the Bush record reveals a complex but consistent pattern of getting the tone all wrong but doing the right things. More: on the basis of the Bush administration's history, there is reason to expect that it will do better for Israel over the next four years than the seemingly attractive but actually quite alarming prospect of a President Clinton.
The Bush Record
The many unpleasantries during the past year have all involved words, not acts. Several of them resulted from Israel's request for a $10 billion loan guarantee to build new housing, the issue which riled U.S.-Israel relations for a full year. Most memorably, this prompted the president's appalling comments of September 1991, when he spoke of himself as "one lonely little guy down here" and referred to his being "up against some powerful political forces." The same tensions also explain Secretary of State James Baker's alleged vulgarism ("fuck the Jews"). Clearly, Bush and Baker felt as much exasperation over the loan guarantee issue as did Jewish leaders.
But not all problems resulted from the loan guarantee issue. Twice in recent months the State Department initiated gratuitous and nasty efforts harmful to Israel, leaking a false report to the effect that Israel had transferred American arms to China; and endorsing (out of absolutely nowhere) a Palestinian right of return. Even for those favorably disposed to Bush, it felt at moments like U.S.-Israel relations had dropped to their lowest point since the 1950s.
But then, the administration's actions contradicted this impression.
Start with Operation Desert Storm. The war on Iraq not only destroyed the offensive capabilities (tanks, missiles, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, etc.) of Israel's second most dangerous enemy, but it assured that Iraq will not threaten other states again so long as Saddam Husayn remains in power. Diplomatically, the U.S. government put together a de facto coalition between Israel and Saudi Arabia which lasted through all the ups and downs of the Kuwait crisis, then held firm even after fighting ended (as Prince Bandar proved when he turned up at the Madrid conference).
The war also vastly enhanced the U.S. government's reputation in the Middle East. Building on this new stature, Baker devoted himself to launching an Arab-Israeli peace process which imposed not a single precondition on Israel. More impressive yet, he pressured the Arabs to accept virtually every Likud demand. Points of reference for the talks contain nothing about Jerusalem or about land for peace. Palestinians had no choice but to be folded into the Jordanian delegation. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Palestinian expatriates, and even Jerusalem residents could not participate. European states and the United Nations came as observers. The U.S. government promised not to involve itself directly in the bilaterals unless asked to join by both Israel and its Arab interlocutor. In a word, Baker put together Israel's dream negotiations, the ones it sought since 1948.
Bush and Baker helped Israel in a variety of other ways too. As vice president, Bush played a personal role in "Operation Joshua," the 1985 airlift which brought 10,000 Jews out of Ethiopia. Again in 1991, American help had a critical role in "Operation Solomon," the escape of 14,000 more Ethiopian Jews. Baker devoted surprisingly large amounts of his time with Hafiz al-Asad to the subject of Syrian Jews; the reward came earlier this year, when Damascus began permitting them to leave. On a smaller scale, American good offices have helped in Yemen. Most dramatically, Bush achieved got the United Nations to rescind its 1975 "Zionism is Racism" resolution, something that Ronald Reagan never even attempted.
The State Department, not known for pro-Israeli attitudes, has made real improvements under James Baker, as two examples from the past year indicate. When the Syrians made their attendance at a Turkish-sponsored meeting on water resources conditional on Israel not being present, Foggy Bottom made U.S. attendance conditional on Israel being present. (As a result, the meeting was cancelled.) American diplomats worked behind the scenes to help Israel expand its international ties, an effort which culminated earlier this year with the establishment of official ties between Jerusalem and both China and India in the space of a single week.
Less publicly, strategic cooperation has evolved from an abstraction to a military reality during the last four years. It includes the pre-positioning of American materiél in Israel, American purchases of some $300-500 million a year in military equipment from Israel, combined military exercises, and joint development of the Arrow anti-missile program. The two sides installed a military hotline during Desert Storm. And there may be more that's not visible: according to the Washington Post, what is publicly portrayed as merely the pre-positioning of American equipment in Israel actually constitutes a loan to Israel "for military research and development."
Thanks in large part to American actions, Israel today faces fewer threats of war than at any previous time in its forty-four-year history. Only Syria is in the position to initiate an attack on Israel, and it's very unlikely to do so while participating in American-sponsored peace talks.
As for very loan guarantee imbroglio, it sorely needs to be seen in perspective. The issue wasn't as bad as it appeared, for the following reasons:
- Washington never refused to make the loan guarantee, but conditioned it on a cessation of new Jewish settlement activities in the West Bank. The Shamir government rejected these terms. The Rabin government accepted them and got the money. In the end, Israelis decided whether or not they would accept American terms, and not the reverse.
- The administration can hardly be accused of penny-pinching with respect to Israel, or of adding unreasonable conditions. Every year, it unconditionally supported $3 billion in aid to Israel, much the largest per capita aid to any country. In 1991 it also backed a $400 million supplement for housing purposes and $650 million in cash for damages suffered during the Gulf War. That comes out to about $1,000 for each Jewish Israeli.
- Israel's survival has always been the central issue in U.S.-Israel relations; in this light, the loan guarantee is tangential, a minor concern compared to the tensions in past years (such as Eisenhower forcing Israel out of Sinai, Ford denying the delivery of fighter planes, and Carter ignoring Egyptian treaty violations).
- How can not getting free money be seen as an insult?
- Israel did get the money.
All this said, doing without the loan guarantee probably would serve Israel's long-term interests. To absorb immigrants, the country needs growth, not aid. But, by permitting Israeli politicians to defer the hard decisions, American handouts permit Israel's dinosaur socialist institutions to limp on. The prospect of no loan guarantee compelled the Israeli government to get serious about economic reforms, privatization in particular. Conversely, its granting may have unfortunate consequences. For example, those major corporations-the telephone exchange, chemical manufacturer, shipping line-on the block for privatization may now remain under government control.
Israelis themselves, in a development with far-reaching implications, increasingly doubt the value of aid. Just a year ago this view was restricted to a small band of economic liberals; now it echoes from all parts of the political spectrum. David Boaz, a former state budget director, publicly aired his fears that the loan guarantee would foster an "easy money" atmosphere which would result in an expansion of government funding and subsidies. The economics editor of Yedi'ot Achronot, Sever Plotzker, worried it would turn into "a kind of opium"; feeling $10 billion richer, difficult reforms would go undone. An economic correspondent for Ha'aretz, Arie Caspi, suggested that "now that we have [the funds], I don't think we should use them. It will cause more harm than good to the Israeli economy."
While the Bush administration didn't withhold loan guarantee for Israel's benefit, this was the inadvertent effect.
A Family Tie
If the Bush administration has done so much good for Israel, why do Israel's supporters not give it credit? The answer in part has to do with George Bush's own inconsistencies (as conservatives have also noted, with acute frustration). But it mostly results from his style. The importance of style in U.S.-Israel relations requires an appreciation for the uniqueness of this bilateral tie, so I take up this topic before moving on to the matter of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party.
U.S.-Israel ties are the family relationship of international politics-more intimate, more intense, and more interfering than any other. The special connections are worth recalling briefly.
Per capita, the U.S. government gives by far the largest amounts of aid to Israel; conversely, Jerusalem votes Washington's way at the United Nations 88 percent of the time, substantially more often than any other state. The first free trade zone in American history came into existence in 1985 with Israel; only later came Canada and Mexico. Of all the ambassadors in Washington, Israel's consistently enjoys the best access to the Oval Office.
Like family, each side baldly interferes in the others' own affairs. Israelis effectively exploit their strength with Congress and American Jews to get their way. Conversely, leading American figures call on their government to "save Israeli in spite of herself" (a phrase made current by George Ball) and the White House transparently provokes elections in Israel, always favoring Labor over Likud. Washington not only pressures Israel on external issues, but also on domestic ones, such as its economic structures. So routine is American intrusion, Israelis have come to accept it and no longer even express resentment. In July 1989, for example, as the Bush administration pressured Labor to stay in a coalition government with Likud, an Israeli official commented that "Because of the intensity and intimacy of the relationship between our two countries, we have gotten used to such intervention and do not see it as meddling." What other foreign government would accept this?
The involvement goes beyond governments. American Jews intercede in Israel's domestic politics, most memorably in 1988, when one American faction (the Lubavichers) instigated a tightening of Israel's who's-a-Jew regulations, only to be foiled by pressure by other (non-Orthodox) American factions. More American journalists live in Israel than in any other foreign country except the United Kingdom (and many London-based correspondents cover the Continent too, whereas those in Israel rarely leave the country). Though Israel exports no petroleum, oil companies pay it enormous attention. And Israel is the only country to which tens of millions of Americans (eschatologically-minded Christians) look for portents of the Judgment Day.
For their part, Israelis look to the United States for nearly everything: popular culture, intellectual issues, United Nations vetoes, and military support. New York fads hit Tel Aviv before reaching many parts of the United States. And the relationship is literally family; probably a majority of Israelis have known relatives in the United States.
An Emotional Base
Unlike other diplomatic bonds, which pivot on such national interests as trade and security interests, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has an emotional base. Feelings, not a cool assessment of interests, drive its every aspect. Tone, style, mood, and perception often matter more than hard facts. When an issue like the loan guarantee becomes emblematic of American friendship for Israel, it gets freighted with a significance far greater than the practical issues involved. This also explains why American Jews seek out politicians who personally identify with Israel and show their concern for Israel's long-term security. George Bush didn't treat Israel like family. He and Baker retained the kind of stiffness appropriate to conventional diplomacy but alien to this special bond.
In contrast, Secretary of State George Shultz fully understood this need. When addressing AIPAC's annual conference in 1987, for instance, he departed from the written text of his speech to ask this large and avidly pro-Israel audience if it thought the PLO 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. "You got it!" the secretary of state replied. Not surprisingly, Shultz's rapport won him the permanent affection of Israel's supporters. But style is not substance, as Shultz proved just a year later when he opened official U.S. relations with the PLO. Though friends of Israel most dreaded this step, they raised hardly a word of protest. Pro-Israel credentials gave Shultz virtual freedom of action.
The reverse applies as well; a politician who fails to establish an emotional rapport can do nothing right. Though Bush and Baker closed down Shultz's dialogue with the PLO, this won them very little gratitude from American Jews. They improved in other ways too on Shultz's policies (his peace process meant just Israel and Palestinians, theirs expanded it to include no less than eleven Arab states), yet earned few credits from American Jews. Bush's tin ear and Baker's verbal reluctance condemn them to a purgatory in which they can do nothing right. Harsh words get endlessly repeated, while friendly acts immediately get discounted. So much attention to a politician's emotional signals renders his actions relatively unimportant. Shultz gained from this distortion, Bush and Baker suffer from it.
Arabs, it's worth noting, don't fall into this trap. Unmoved by the emotional dimension of U.S.-Israel relations, they focus instead on its substance. They see a profound connection between the two countries, one deeper even than is the case. Arabs tend to discount Washington's tough-sounding tone with Israel, and instead dwell on a few key facts: Israel won peace negotiations on its terms, the U.S. government did grant the $10 billion loan guarantee, and President Bush reconfirmed his opposition to a Palestinian state. Worse, Bush staged war against one Arab state (Iraq) and imposed sanctions on another (Libya). A newspaper cartoon last April captured the prevailing Arab view: Uncle Sam salutes Yitzhak Shamir and reports: "We've blockaded Libya, who would you like next?"
In an unusual acknowledgment of the emotional basis of U.S.-Israel ties, President 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." The president concluded by noting "that historians will look at today's controversy and wonder what much of the fuss was about." He's right; the time has come to go beyond tone and style to look objectively at facts. Israel's supporters need to wean themselves from emotionalism and recognize a positive record for what it is. They are better off with lousy style and great substance than the reverse.
Simultaneously, Bush and Baker need to understand the critical role of feelings in U.S.-Israel relations. Some evidence suggests they are finally getting the message. Bush's remarks after hosting Yitzhak Rabin at his Kennabunkport summer house (sorry, no Jeep rides) showed a new level of warmth. The U.S.-Israel relationship is "based on a shared commitment to democracy and to common values, as well as the solid commitment to Israel's security, including its qualitative military edge. This is a special relationship. It is one that is built to endure." Looking to the future, Bush promises neither to "impose our preferences on Israel" or link aid to policy questions. If this tone keeps up, U.S.-Israel relations will prosper mightily during a second Bush administration; even if it doesn't, the past four years give plenty of reasons to expect things to turn out well.
Problems with the Democrats
What about Bill Clinton? He has no record to judge but he does have a fully articulated set of policies and they're certainly friendly to Israel. His campaign literature has him opposing the creation of an independent Palestinian state, recognizing the value of the 1981 strike on Osirak (the Iraqi nuclear reactor), and paying homage to the "genius of the people" of Israel. "A Clinton/Gore Administration," it concludes, "will never let Israel down."
In a word, Clinton does understand the need for warmth toward Israel, and it wins him strong support. The Forward, a Jewish weekly, prefers Bill Clinton on the grounds that he and the Democrats "have managed to articulate . . . a more impassioned sense than the Republicans of Israel's moral raison d'etre." George Bush, who does not articulate an impassioned sense about anything, simply can't compete on this level.
But, of course, it's not the crucial level. Clinton just might follow Shultz in establishing a strong rapport, then exploit the freedom of action that permits him to bludgeon Israel. Or, like Joe Clark of Canada in 1979, he might ditch his pro-Israel campaign promises soon after the election. No one can predict how Clinton will act, but we do have some idea about the forces swirling around him in the Democratic Party, and they inspire little confidence about policy toward Israel. Two worries stand out: the Democratic Party's Third Worldism and its Balkanized constituencies.
During the Jewish state's first twenty years, Democrats supported Israel far more than Republicans. Then came Vietnam and the Six Day War. Powerful elements in the party characterize Israel as the Palestinians' oppressor and as a tool of the U.S. government. Democratic National Conventions stopped featuring resolutions in favor of Israel, replacing them with endorsements of a Palestinian state. The revulsion of many Democrats toward military spending, foreign arms sales, and the use of force makes them less than stalwart friends of Israel. To take just one example: had Clinton or another Democrat been president when Saddam invaded Kuwait, he'd still be there now. His nuclear arsenal would be functional about now. In personal terms, Harry Truman gave way to George McGovern, Henry Jackson to Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King to Andrew Young. The heroic Clark Clifford of 1948 became a bagman for (the anti-Israel) BCCI in 1988.
Hilary Rodham Clinton exemplifies the new mindset. Although primarily concerned with domestic issues, during the time she served as both director and chairman of the board of directors of the New World Foundation, that organization made a $15,000 grant to the Grassroots International which the latter passed on to two little-known organizations, the Union of Palestinian Working Women's Committees and the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. Insight magazine reports that both these organizations fall under the supervision of the Palestine People's Party, a communist faction associated with the PLO. The sum of money is small, but it unambiguously proclaims a state of mind.
Republicans also changed. They came to appreciate Israel as a staunch ally in a critical region. The oil perspective lost influence as business interests in the party gave way to a free-market approach. The Republican evolution is neatly symbolized by Senator Jesse Helms' complete change of heart about Israel. In August 1982, as the Israelis were besieging Beirut, he called for "shutting down" relations with Israel. Less than two years later, in June 1984, he called for the U.S. Embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
More broadly, William F. Buckley, Jr.'s public soul-searching on the question of conservative anti-Semitism evinced little response among his Democratic counterparts on the far more worrisome phenomenon of liberal anti-Semitism. Rogue elements also brought out the parties' differences. Gus Savage prompted no denunciations in the Democratic Party, despite his foul statements about Jews and Israel. But Republicans strongly repudiated David Duke.
In sum, a fundamental shift of attitudes has taken place in the two parties, with the Republicans emerging as the champion of Jewish interests, including Israel.
The Democrats' Balkanized constituencies confirms this trend. Republicans still see Americans as individuals, whereas Democrats look to them as members of (female, Black, Hispanic, labor, homosexual, etc.) lobby groups. Republicans debate principles, Democrats throw concessions to contending elements. The one argues, the other counts noses. The abortion debate dramatizes this distinction: Republicans take a stand knowing it has limited appeal even within the party, Democrats concede the issue to feminists.
These distinctions have importance for Middle East policy. The Republican move toward a pro-Israel stand represents an evolving long-term commitment. Though far from unanimous, the direction is clear. The Democratic position, in contrast, shifts opportunistically. At this moment, to be sure, forces friendly to Israel can out-muscle the opposition. But watch out. Just as soon as isolationist impulses grow stronger or Arab-Americans get organized, the pro-Israel stand will evaporate as quickly as ice on a summer afternoon in the Negev.