The Magazine

Letting Israel Be Israel

Bush's consistent approach to war and peace in the Middle East.

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By FRED BARNES
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NO ONE should have been surprised by President Bush's let-Israel-fight policy in the current Middle East conflict. Bush is consistent. The essentials of his approach to Israel and its enemies were adopted four years ago when the president ostracized then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and called for democracy and reform in the Arab countries. Bush's policy is pro-Israel in that it is based on his belief that Israel wants peace with its neighbors, but some of them don't want peace with Israel. So Israel stands on higher moral ground.

The reaction when the policy was unveiled in June 2002 was the same as it is today. The foreign policy establishment was upset, even aghast. And almost all of Bush's allies in the G8 group of industrial democracies were disapproving.

Today, the major issue is a cease-fire. The establishment and the Europeans want one, and at least for now Bush doesn't. Why not? A cease-fire would preserve the status quo ante, the situation before the war between Israel and Hezbollah. That would mean Hezbollah, armed with thousands of missiles, would still be deployed along Israel's northern border. Not only would Israel's security remain in jeopardy, but the fragile democracy in Lebanon would continue to be compromised by Hezbollah's presence.

Bush doesn't want that. He wants the circumstances to be changed. The president prefers to give Israel time to "degrade"--the administration's verb of choice--Hezbollah's military capability and emasculate the terrorist organization as a political force. For that to occur, Israel must continue to pound Hezbollah with air power and perhaps mount a ground attack.

The president's goal is a new Middle East. "True reform," he said in 2002, "will require entirely new political and economic institutions, based on democracy, market economics, and action against terrorism." Then, he was referring specifically to reform of the Palestinian Authority. Now, he'd like to apply those principles to the entire Middle East. Bush's only qualm about Israel's military offensive is that it might destabilize Lebanon's democratic government. Otherwise, he's happy for Israel to stay on the attack.

Bush also takes a broad view of Israel's right to defend itself aggressively. Four years ago, Bush said Israel has "a right to security" and a "right to defend itself from terror." This extended to tactics he didn't discuss in public. One was to permit Israel to assassinate terrorist leaders in the Palestinian territories without reprimands from the White House or State Department. Now, Bush says he won't make military decisions for Israel.

Since Israel responded to twin incursions and kidnappings of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah, Bush has been hounded by critics for not being "engaged" in recent years in diplomacy and peace negotiations in the Middle East. Had he been, hostilities might have been averted. In other words, his critics insist, the outbreak of war is Bush's fault, partly anyway. This is nonsense.

In the Middle East, calls for American engagement have always been a euphemism for pressuring Israel to make concessions. And engagement has often been accompanied by unproductive shuttle diplomacy by the secretary of state from one Middle East capital to another, a practice made famous by Henry Kissinger in the 1970s.

Bush has rejected shuttle diplo macy. He made that clear in 2002. More important, the president concluded that Israel would never reach a settlement with a terrorist state or organization and thus diplomacy aimed at achieving such a settlement was a nonstarter.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, advocated exactly that sort of diplomacy last week when he called for a cease-fire that would lead to negotiations and a "lasting peace." Bush demurred, and for good reason. He doesn't believe in negotiating agreements between what an aide called "irreconcilables." And Israel and Hezbollah are irreconcilable, as are Israel and Hamas and Israel and Syria. So such agreements never work. Israel's enemies routinely violate them.

What would work, in Bush's view, is the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1559. It would require the disarming and dismantling of Hezbollah, a step that would provide Israel with security and the Lebanese government with freedom to act without the approval of Hezbollah, a group beholden to a foreign power, Iran. Annan didn't mention the resolution in his plea for a cease-fire.

When the president met last week with his G8 allies in St. Petersburg, Russia, he persuaded them to forgo a demand for an unconditional cease-fire. Instead, the "Statement by Group of Eight Leaders" issued on July 16 called for "utmost restraint" by Israel and said "the most urgent priority is to create the conditions for a cessation of violence."