A Handshake That Doesn't Help Israel
By David Ignatius
Friday, April 16, 2004; Page A21
President Bush is on a roll in the Middle East . . . backward. His embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's positions on settlements and Palestinian refugees has needlessly squandered U.S. leverage in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Bush supporters would argue that he has done no more than state the obvious: Some Israeli settlements will remain in the West Bank after any "final status" agreement, and Israel will never absorb within its own borders the Palestinian refugees who fled after 1948.
But Bush ignores the fact that there can be powerful reasons not to say the obvious -- and that studied ambiguity is an important part of successful diplomacy. That's why six previous administrations had resisted taking the step Bush did Wednesday and endorsing one side's positions in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They wanted to preserve America's ability to act as a mediator, in part because they believed that role best served the interests of America's ally, Israel.
Bush is not a man for diplomatic ambiguity. He famously prefers to see things in simpler, black-or-white terms. In particular, he tends to view the world through the narrow and sometimes distorting prism of the war on terrorism. Asked Wednesday whether Israeli settlements are an impediment to the peace process (which is the position taken by his predecessors for the past 20 years) Bush answered: "The problem is, is that there's terrorists who will kill people in order to stop the process."
This distaste for subtleties is probably part of what many Americans like about Bush -- he's not some fancy-pants diplomat talking all the time about "nuances." But the public should understand that however satisfying Bush's plain talk may be, it can be harmful to the nation's security.
The recent turmoil in Iraq offers two examples of how the Bush administration's rhetoric can put the United States out on an awkward limb. U.S. officials decided to demonize the troublesome Iraqi Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr, despite warnings from Iraqis and some U.S. officials that such "capture or kill" tactics would only enhance Sadr's standing.
Climbing out on that limb was defensible if the administration was certain it would never have to make its way back and negotiate a deal with Sadr. But it seems increasingly likely that the U.S.-led coalition may have to settle for some negotiated arrangement that allows Sadr and members of his militia to survive as the price of restoring stability within the Shiite community.
The dangers of demonization are also clear in the United States' relationship with Iran. Bush set the ultra-moral tone when he designated Iran as part of the "axis of evil" in 2002. That sort of language is fine if you think you're never going to need to strike a bargain with the evil one. But who should show up this week in Baghdad to explore a negotiated settlement of the Shiite crisis than an Iranian mediating team. Iran paid a severe price yesterday when one of its diplomats was assassinated in Baghdad.
Sources tell me the administration was prodded into accepting Iranian help by the British, who have centuries of experience in supping with devils of one sort or another.
Great powers need flexibility. They should avoid taking public steps that unnecessarily limit their ability to maneuver in private. They should be cautious about marching up hills without being sure how they will get back down. They should never (or almost never) say "never." They should be especially wary of using military force, because once the battle is joined, it can't be abandoned. To the Bush administration, these may seem like sissies' rules, but they've served successful U.S. presidents well for more than two centuries.
What makes Bush's abandonment of long-standing U.S. positions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so unfortunate is that it was unnecessary. The Israelis have powerful security reasons for withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza and dismantling their settlements there. It's not a concession that the United States should have to buy by sacrificing its own negotiating leverage; it's something most Israelis want because it's in their country's interest. Sharon's problem is the settlers, and the faction within his own party that supports them. They're likely to oppose his withdrawal plan despite whatever goodies he brings home from Washington.
Bush's disdain for decades of diplomacy is costly for the United States. At a time when America needs allies in a real war in Iraq and against Islamic terrorists, Bush's polarizing style fends them off. Saddest of all, in his eagerness to help Israel, Bush may be undermining America's greatest gift to its friend and ally: the ability to help broker a deal with the Palestinians.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company