Push for Peace Poses Domestic Political Risk for Bush

Times Staff Writer

President Bush’s intensified drive for peace in the Middle East could expose him to political risks at home, even as it creates opportunities for diplomatic gains in the region, analysts say.

Bush’s meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers Wednesday culminated in a stunning shift that has seen the president both escalate his personal involvement in negotiations and exert more pressure on Israel than at any point in his term.

While polls show that most Americans support that approach, Bush’s push for concessions from Israel as part of the peace process raises red flags among pro-Israel evangelical Christians -- a core element of his political coalition -- and conservative Jews who have liked the president’s staunch support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.


“Significant portions of both the Christian base that Bush already has and Jewish voters that he hoped to get are increasingly concerned,” said Gary Bauer, a leader among conservative Christians.

Yet Bush’s drive to advance the “road map” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is receiving positive marks from more liberal Jewish leaders who in the past have criticized him.

“It’s being received by most American Jews with relief, that he is finally engaged and that he means business,” said Jonathan Jacoby, founding director of the Israel Policy Forum, a prominent liberal Jewish group. “That’s a relief because ... they have been waiting for someone to break the logjam.”

Those disparate assessments frame the key political question for Bush: Can he attract more domestic support by aligning unreservedly with Sharon or by advancing the peace process, even if that means tension with Israeli leaders?

Through the first two years of his presidency, Bush almost entirely pursued the first option. He lavished praise on Sharon, whom he called a “man of peace,” and refused to deal with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat or to press the two sides very hard to resume talks.

Although Bush in April 2002 publicly called on Sharon to end Israel’s incursion into the West Bank -- which followed an upsurge in Palestinian suicide bombings -- the president essentially backed off when the prime minister ignored the demand.


Bush’s close identification with Sharon’s right-leaning Likud government won him praise from religious conservatives. It also appeared to be helping Bush gain among American Jews, whose concerns about Israeli security were heightened by last year’s wave of suicide bombings.

In 2000, Bush won only 19% of the Jewish vote against Democrat Al Gore, who captured 79%, according to network exit polls. American Jews are generally liberal voters, especially on social issues, who almost always give Democrats most of their votes. But even so, Bush’s showing was one of the weakest for a Republican presidential candidate in the past 25 years.

Yet as Bush stood with Sharon in 2002, many Jewish activists believed the president was both positioning himself to improve on his 2000 showing and, perhaps more important, to win financial support from Jewish donors who traditionally have supported Democrats.

“Financially, already he’s benefiting,” said a Washington lobbyist for a leading Jewish group who requested anonymity. “But in addition to that, during his presidency terrorism has become a big issue, global anti-Semitism has become a big issue and Israel continues to be under siege. And on all three of those, which resonate in the broader Jewish community, this guy has been golden.”

Over the past two months, though, Bush has engineered a change in strategy that culminated in Wednesday’s meeting in Jordan with Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Since late April, when the Bush administration released the “road map” outlining reciprocal steps Israel and the Palestinians were expected to take toward peace, Bush has repositioned himself more in the mode of a mediator.

That’s the posture most Americans want Bush to take, according to a detailed poll released last week by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Almost three-fourths of those surveyed said America should not take either the Israeli or Palestinian side. While Americans expressed more sympathy for Israel than for the Palestinians, strong majorities favored exerting pressure on both to advance the peace process, at least as long as the Palestinian leadership cracks down on terrorism.

Yet the survey strikingly found that Republicans were more resistant to an American approach built on pressuring both sides. In the poll, 35% of Republicans said the United States should unequivocally favor Israel -- nearly triple the percentage among Democrats.

That’s partly because almost half of all evangelical Christians polled wanted the United States to overtly side with Israel. Those sentiments were reflected in a letter to Bush that Bauer helped organize in May from two dozen religious conservative leaders that denounced the peace plan.

In an interview, Bauer acknowledged that Bush has built up “such affection among Christian conservatives” that few may reject him solely because of his shift on Israel. But he predicted that if Bush sustains this direction, it could reduce turnout among religious voters in 2004. The larger political question may be how Bush’s shift will affect Jewish voters and donors. Representing only about 4% of the national vote, Jews are hardly a dominant constituency. But they could help tip a few hotly contested states, particularly Florida.

Bush’s new peace initiative, while welcomed by liberal Jewish groups, such as the Israel Policy Forum, has been received more warily by more mainstream groups. Still, despite some private grumbling, analysts note, the major Jewish lobbies -- particularly the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- have not condemned the administration policy.

Although the number of Jews surveyed in the University of Maryland poll is too small to draw definitive conclusions, Steven Kull, its director, said the findings suggest most would support Bush in demanding concessions from Israel as well as the Palestinians if the peace process appears to be fair.

But James B. Steinberg, deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration, said resistance from U.S. Jewish groups and evangelical conservatives would probably intensify if Bush presses Sharon to take steps the Israeli leader resists -- as Steinberg believes is inevitable if the president is to steer the two sides closer to peace.

“That’s the moment of truth when the administration’s choice has to be made,” Steinberg said.



Voices from Aqaba and beyond

“The Holy Land must be shared between the state of Palestine and the state of Israel, living in peace with one another and with every nation of the Middle East.”

President Bush


“The armed intifada must end, and we must use and resort to peaceful means in our quest to end the occupation and suffering of Palestinians and Israelis. We will exert all our efforts, using all our resources to end the militarization of the intifada -- and we will succeed.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas


“I want to reiterate that Israel is a society governed by the rule of law. Thus we will begin immediately to evacuate unauthorized outposts.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon


“The situation we are in now is unsustainable for any of the parties. I believe a degree of trust was built up over the last couple of days. Real trust is going to come from performance.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell


“I’m the master of low expectations. I think we accomplished what I hoped we would accomplish, but I don’t think we necessarily exceeded expectations. I think ‘met expectations’ is a better way to put it.”

President Bush


“Blowing up buses will not induce the Israelis to move forward, and neither will the killing of Palestinians or the demolition of their homes and their future. All this needs to stop.”

King Abdullah II of Jordan


“Nobody rewarded Al Qaeda for blowing up the twin towers, so why are we giving these terrorists who murdered us a prize?”

Michael Semel, 24, a security guard from Jerusalem


“As Palestinians, we will continue our resistance until achieving our goals.”

Abdulaziz Rantisi, senior Hamas official, in Gaza

Los Angeles Times