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Richard Cohen

Pro-Israel, But Pro-Peace?

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page A25

My Uncle Joe should have been a Republican. He was rich and socially conservative and maybe a fiscal conservative too, although perhaps I believe this because he was an accountant. Anyway, when he was old and I was young, I used to spend the occasional night with him, and one time I mentioned that I might just vote for a certain Republican. The news literally made him sputter.

Those were the days when it was awfully hard to find a Jewish Republican. Now it seems that I can find nothing but. I know this is an exaggeration, but while the polls tell me that only about a fifth of American Jewish voters support George W. Bush, my ears say the figure is much higher. Everywhere I go, people tell me they will vote for Bush because he has been a mighty friend of Israel.

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I cannot argue. But I can point out that his friendship has hardly been a boon to the Jewish state. Let me make my argument arithmetically. From the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 until September 2000, when the Camp David summit came to naught, about 256 Israelis -- civilians and soldiers alike -- were killed by Palestinian violence. Bill Clinton was in office during those years.

The next four years were mostly Bush's, and the numbers tell a different story. Between Sept. 29, 2000, and September 2004 -- four, not eight, years -- 1,026 Israelis were killed by Palestinians. While it is true that those years correspond to the second intifada, which erupted after the collapse of the Clinton-inspired peace talks, they nevertheless speak for themselves. It cannot be argued that Israel is better off because George Bush is in the White House.

I am not maintaining that the higher fatality figures are a direct consequence of Bush's policies. The second intifada was not caused by Bush, and Clinton's critics are right in saying that for too long Washington was much too nice to Yasser Arafat. In fact, Clinton's own Middle East negotiator, Dennis Ross, writes in his book, "The Missing Peace," that "President Bush and those around him were right to believe that we had indulged Arafat too much."

Well, Arafat is indulged no more. Israel has him cooped up in Ramallah, and while the Europeans may complain, Washington does not. Within the Bush administration, Arafat is routinely denounced as a liar, terrorist and all-around creep. Colin Powell, who will talk to almost anyone, has no contact with him.

But the isolation of Arafat, while immensely satisfying, cannot be said to have saved lives -- not Israeli and not Palestinian. In fact, his demonization is characteristically Bush. Arafat is another Saddam Hussein -- vile, evil and all of that. But just as the capture of Hussein has not made Iraq any safer for Americans, so has the isolation of Arafat not ended the intifada. In both Iraq and what can be called Palestine, the problem is not a single man but mass movements.

Under Clinton, Washington was fully engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Under Bush, Washington has not been -- the tattered road map notwithstanding. What's worse, Bush's insistence on going to war with Iraq -- not to mention his conduct of it -- has not, as the administration long argued, made Israel any safer (Iran is the real threat) and has not collapsed Islamic terrorist organizations. The road to Jerusalem did not go through Baghdad, as we were repeatedly told, but dead-ended there. If, as it now seems likely, Iraq becomes yet another Islamist state, replacing a homicidal pragmatist (Hussein) with a religious fanatic (name to be supplied later), it's hard to see how Israel will be better off.

Maybe a more active Middle East policy on the part of the Bush administration would not have produced any breakthrough, but even something more modest would still have been welcomed. Back when the United States was really actively engaged in the area, the CIA, working with Israeli, Palestinian and other intelligence services, stopped more than one terrorist operation before any damage was done. Those low fatality figures for the Clinton years were not entirely a coincidence. They were the product of hard work.

No doubt George Bush is a true friend of Israel. But so was Bill Clinton and so would be John Kerry. This is an American political reality -- a reflection of sturdy Democratic and Republican positions, plus a national affinity for a fellow democracy. The issue is not who cares more for Israel but who can be effective in reducing the violence and bring about a peaceful solution. So far, that's not been George Bush.

cohenr@washpost.com


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