Bush to visit an ambivalent Israel


Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For seven years, President Bush has been a distant defender of Israel, working from Washington to tilt America’s policies in the Middle East more firmly behind its longtime ally.

When he arrives here Wednesday on his first presidential visit, however, Bush will find an ambivalent Israeli public. It is appreciative of his efforts, yet critical of U.S. setbacks that have made the region feel more threatening.

No recent president has been less involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations than Bush. But more explicitly than his predecessors, Bush has accepted the permanence of the biggest Jewish settlement clusters in the West Bank and opposed a massive return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. He supports the Israeli army’s vigorous pursuit of militants in the Palestinian territories and Israel’s construction, now nearly complete, of a barrier between its territory and the West Bank.

Israelis credit Bush’s positions with helping protect them from Palestinian suicide bombers. But many fault him for pursuing sweeping regional goals that they fear have backfired.

Though Israelis are grateful that Saddam Hussein is gone, they worry that the U.S. intervention in Iraq has benefited Israel’s more dangerous enemy, Iran, better enabling Tehran to pursue the development of nuclear weapons.

Israeli officials view Bush’s effort to promote Arab democracy, a theme the president will stress in the five Arab countries he visits after leaving here Friday, as naive and counterproductive because they say it has empowered Islamists and Iranian clients in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.

And as Bush steps tardily into the role of peace broker, Israelis are divided on whether they were helped or hurt by his years of willful disengagement and doubtful that he has enough time, clout or commitment to bring negotiations anywhere near an end.

It was just six weeks ago that Bush convened Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an international conference in Annapolis, Md., and promised to help them settle their decades-old conflict by the time he leaves office. Since then, however, the peace talks have made scant progress.

“Speaking strictly about his policy toward radical Islamism, Bush arouses sympathies in Israel for his strategies of commitment to turn back that danger,” said Eran Lerman, a former Israeli intelligence officer who directs the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee. “But his mistakes have cost us dearly and have left us with a sense of doubt about the validity of the overall strategy.”

On balance, Bush remains widely popular here, far more so than he is at home. In part this is because he leads the country most Israelis believe to be their only true ally, a conviction that has grown since Sept. 11, 2001, and the start of his administration’s campaign against terrorism.

Three of every four Israelis say Bush’s attitude toward Israel is friendly, and four in five believe the United States would come to Israel’s aid if a crisis threatened its existence, according to a survey last year for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the Anti-Defamation League.

Israelis following the American presidential race are hard pressed to name a candidate who would be as “good for Israel” as Bush. During an Oval Office interview last week, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot half-jokingly assured Bush that in Israel he could be elected to a third term.

Yet Israelis sound as disillusioned as Americans do when discussing Bush’s military intervention in Iraq.

“The Americans haven’t learned from our lessons in the region or from their own in Vietnam,” said Reuven Greenfeld, a 57-year-old retired police officer who was sitting at a cafe in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion.

By invading Iraq, Bush rid the region of a government that attacked Israel with missiles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, continued to menace its eastern front and compensated the families of Palestinian suicide bombers with $25,000 checks.

“Bush’s policies regarding terror are right in principle, but you need smarts in addition to force,” Greenfeld said. “The smart thing in Iraq would have been to get out quickly.”

That is what then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon privately counseled Bush before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, even as much of Israel’s foreign policy establishment publicly welcomed it. According to Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli negotiator, Sharon warned that occupying Iraq would radicalize the region and embolden Islamist enemies of Israel, including Iran.

Israeli leaders are haunted by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, despite the Jewish state’s own unacknowledged nuclear deterrent. They were taken aback last month when a consensus report by U.S. spy agencies declared with “high confidence” that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and with “moderate confidence” that the program had not resumed.

Israeli officials say they believe Iran resumed its program in 2005. Israeli experts on Iran say the American report will make any military action against Iran, by the United States or Israel, less likely and probably kill or dilute U.S.-led efforts to continue international economic sanctions against Tehran.

Bush told reporters he would use his trip to reassure leaders of Israel and moderate Arab states that his administration still views Iran as a potential nuclear threat.

He will make his first visits to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia before meeting briefly with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el Sheik on his way home Jan. 16.

But the primary aim of the journey, Bush said, is to advance the peace talks launched in Annapolis. He will meet here with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and in the West Bank with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“I’m going to remind them of the work they’ve got to do,” Bush told the Israeli reporters. “Now is the time to move.”

Bush’s only previous visit to Israel came in 1998 as governor of Texas, when he bonded with Sharon during a helicopter ride over Israel and the West Bank.

Two years later, President Clinton failed in his final months in office to forge a deal between Israeli officials and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which was followed soon after by a Palestinian uprising. While building its barrier along the West Bank, Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005, only to see the enclave fall to Abbas’ Islamic rival, Hamas, first in elections that the Bush administration had promoted and then in a military rout of Abbas’ forces.

After succeeding Clinton, Bush watched from a distance, shunning the incremental diplomacy of previous administrations and rarely visiting the Middle East. He gave a free hand to Sharon, who became prime minister in 2001 and served until a disabling stroke two years ago, to subdue militants in the West Bank. Then he set a sweeping goal, establishment of a Palestinian state on terms favorable to Israel, and left the details to subordinates. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice managed to revive the peace process only over the last year.

“He hasn’t put pressure on this country to make concessions,” said Michael Oren, a senior fellow at Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institution. “The almost limitless latitude he gave Israel in countering terror was instrumental in aiding us to survive years of suicide bombings to reach a point where we had just seven terrorism fatalities last year.”

But some Israelis believe the hands-off approach hurt the country’s interests by shielding its leaders from hard decisions about peace. Israel would help secure its future by pulling out of the West Bank as well as Gaza, they argue, and Bush squandered opportunities to push the two sides toward a deal to achieve that goal.

Even now, Bush is faulted for what Israelis view as minimal intervention.

“The effort doesn’t stand up to the intense shuttle diplomacy we’ve seen in recent decades by Republican or Democratic administrations,” said Alpher, who runs a website promoting Israeli-Palestinian Internet dialogue, “For Bush to come here once in eight years and stay three days, this is not serious.”

Other Israelis worry that Bush is trying to achieve too much. They argue that Olmert is too weak to move against Jewish settlements that the United States wants dismantled and that Abbas is too weak to stop attacks on Israel.

“Bush cannot move Olmert, because Olmert himself does not have the power to move anything,” said Greenfeld, the retired police officer. “The best the Americans can do for us is to support us from afar, make sure it is known to all that we won’t be thrown into the sea, and let things work themselves out.”

Times staff writers Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.