Running for reelection last month, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel repeatedly boasted of the "deep friendship" he has built with the Bush administration -- "a special closeness," he called it. He thanked President Bush for understanding Israel's security needs and for providing "the required leeway in our ongoing war on terrorism." He praised Bush's latest proposals for reaching a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement -- a plan, said Sharon, that he and Bush had agreed on together.
Sharon was describing what his American supporters call the closest relationship in decades, perhaps ever, between a U.S. president and an Israeli government. "This is the best administration for Israel since Harry Truman [who first recognized an independent Israel]," said Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a think tank that promotes strategic cooperation with Israel as vital to U.S. security interests.
For the first time, a U.S. administration and a Likud government in Israel are pursuing nearly identical policies. Earlier U.S. administrations, from Jimmy Carter's through Bill Clinton's, held Likud and Sharon at arm's length, distancing the United States from Likud's traditionally tough approach to the Palestinians. But today, as Neumann noted, Israel and the United States share a common view on terrorism, peace with the Palestinians, war with Iraq and more. Neumann and others said this change was made possible by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath.
The Bush administration's alignment with Sharon delights many of its strongest supporters, especially evangelical Christians, and a large part of organized American Jewry, according to leaders in both groups, who argue that Palestinian terrorism pushed Bush to his new stance. But it has led to a freeze on diplomacy in the region that is criticized by Arab countries and their allies, and by many past and current officials who have participated in the long-running, never-conclusive Middle East "peace process."
"Every president since at least Nixon has seen the Arab-Israeli conflict as the central strategic issue in the Middle East," said Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser. "But this administration sees Iraq as the central challenge, and . . . has disengaged from any serious effort to confront the Arab-Israeli problem."
The turning point came last June, when Bush embraced Sharon's view of the Palestinians and made Yasser Arafat's removal as leader of the Palestinian Authority a condition of future diplomacy. That was "a clear shift in policy," Kenneth R. Weinstein, director of the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, a conservative supporter of Israel and Likud. The June speech was "a departure point," agreed Ralph Reed, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and former director of the Christian Coalition.
Since then, U.S. policy has been in step with Sharon's. The peace process is "quiescent," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, Bush's special envoy to the region. "I've kind of gone dormant," he added. In December Bush appointed an articulate, hard-line critic of the traditional peace process, Elliott Abrams, director of Mideast affairs for the National Security Council.
"The Likudniks are really in charge now," said a senior government official, using a Yiddish term for supporters of Sharon's political party. Neumann agreed that Abrams's appointment was symbolically important, not least because Abrams's views were shared by his boss, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, by Vice President Cheney and by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "It's a strong lineup," he said.
Abrams is a former assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration who was convicted on two counts of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal, then pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. In October 2000, Abrams wrote: "The Palestinian leadership does not want peace with Israel, and there will be no peace."
Said Meyrav Wurmser of the Hudson Institute, who shares his outlook: "Elliott's appointment is a signal that the hard-liners in the administration are playing a more central role in shaping policy." She added that "the hard-liners are a very unique group. The hawks in the administration are in fact people who are the biggest advocates of democracy and freedom in the Middle East." She was referring to the idea that promoting democracy is the best way to assure Israel's security, because democratic countries are less likely to attack a neighbor than dictatorships. Adherents of this view have argued that creating a democratic Palestine and a democratic Iraq could have a positive impact on the entire region.
Some Middle East hands who disagree with these supporters of Israel refer to them as "a cabal," in the words of one former official. Members of the group do not hide their friendships and connections, or their loyalty to strong positions in support of Israel and Likud.
One of Abrams's mentors, Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, led a study group that proposed to Binyamin Netanyahu, a Likud prime minister of Israel from 1996 to 1999, that he abandon the Oslo peace accords negotiated in 1993 and reject the basis for them -- the idea of trading "land for peace." Israel should insist on Arab recognition of its claim to the biblical land of Israel, the 1996 report suggested, and should "focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq."
Besides Perle, the study group included David Wurmser, now a special assistant to Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, and Douglas J. Feith, now undersecretary of defense for policy. Feith has written prolifically on Israeli-Arab issues for years, arguing that Israel has as legitimate a claim to the West Bank territories seized after the Six Day War as it has to the land that was part of the U.N.-mandated Israel created in 1948. Perle, Feith and Abrams all declined to be interviewed for this article.
Rumsfeld echoed the Perle group's analysis in a little-noted comment to Pentagon employees last August about "the so-called occupied territories." Rumsfeld said: "There was a war [in 1967], Israel urged neighboring countries not to get involved . . . they all jumped in, and they lost a lot of real estate to Israel because Israel prevailed in that conflict. In the intervening period, they've made some settlements in some parts of the so-called occupied area, which was the result of a war, which they won."
When it came into office the Bush administration was uncertain and divided, sometimes bitterly, over Mideast policy, according to numerous sources. The State Department pressed for continued negotiations and pressure on Sharon to limit the scope of his military response to Palestinian suicide bombers, while the Pentagon and the vice president's office favored more encouragement for the Israelis, and less concern for a peace process which, they said, was going nowhere anyhow. Bush chose not to get personally involved in Mideast diplomacy.
But the administration did make a series of statements and gestures intended to restrain Sharon's response to suicide bombings, and to reassert the traditional U.S. policy that Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank had to cease. At the urging of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Bush publicly embraced the idea of a Palestinian state.
An internal debate split the administration and invited the lobbying of think tanks, Jewish organizations, evangelical Christians and others who take a fierce interest in the Middle East. While some groups including Americans for Peace Now lined up against Sharon's tough policies and in favor of negotiations, most of the organizations and individuals who lobbied on these issues embraced a harder line, and supported Sharon. Over the past dozen years or more, supporters of Sharon's Likud Party have moved into leadership roles in most of the American Jewish organizations that provide financial and political support for Israel.
Friends of Israel in Congress also lined up with Sharon. In November 2001, 89 of 100 senators signed a letter to Bush asking the administration not to try to restrain Israel from using "all [its] strength and might" in response to Palestinian suicide bombings. Signers said they wanted to persuade Bush to prevent Secretary of State Colin L. Powell from pressuring Sharon.
Virtually all participants in these debates agree that Arafat personally contributed to Bush's hardening position over the past two years. Before he took office in 2001, a senior Arab diplomat said, Bush had privately urged Arafat to accept a comprehensive settlement offered him by Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, in January 2001. But Arafat rejected it. A series of episodes in which Bush felt Arafat behaved inappropriately further soured the relationship. Bush repeatedly refused to meet with Arafat, who had met with Clinton 21 times. And month after month, U.S. officials blamed Arafat for failing to prevent the suicide bombings in Israel.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sharon began immediately to argue that Israel and the United States were fighting the same enemy, international terrorism. Over the months that followed -- months marked by escalating violence in Israel and the West Bank -- Bush and Sharon grew closer, personally and politically. By the end of last year the two had met seven times and talked on many more occasions by telephone (with Sharon doing nearly all the talking, Israeli officials said). Said a senior official of the first Bush administration who is critical of this one: "Sharon played the president like a violin: 'I'm fighting your war, terrorism is terrorism,' and so on. Sharon did a masterful job."
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a leading figure in Jewish-Evangelical Christian relations for two decades, offered a more sympathetic description of Bush's alignment with Israel and Sharon. "President Bush's policy stems from his core as a Christian, his perceptions of right and wrong, good and evil, and of the need to stand up and fight against evil," Eckstein said. "I personally believe it is very personal, not a political maneuver on his part."
Politics have played a role, several sources said. Gary Bauer, an evangelical Christian activist and Republican presidential candidate in 2000, said that he and like-minded evangelicals have campaigned vigorously in support of Israel and Sharon's tough policies. "I think we've had some impact," Bauer said.
Another conservative Republican with Christian ties who has made Israel a cause is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Last April, speaking to a Jewish group in Washington, DeLay called Israel "the lone fountain of liberty" in the Middle East, and endorsed Israeli retention of the occupied territories. He referred to West Bank by the biblical names, Judea and Samaria, which are often used by Israelis who consider them part of Israel.
The Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said the White House and its political director, Karl Rove, know "how critical [evangelical] support is to them and their party," and know how strongly evangelicals support Israel. "We need to bless Israel more than America needs Israel's blessing," Land said, "because Israel has a far greater ally than the United States of America, God Almighty."
"This is not your daddy's Republican Party," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, who argues the administration is losing its ability to act as an honest broker in the Middle East by lining up with Israel. "There's a marriage here between the religious right and the neoconservatives," he said, referring to intellectual hard-liners such as Abrams and Perle, both of whom worked for Democrats before joining the Reagan administration.
Another political consideration involves Jewish voters, traditionally a Democratic constituency. Reed, the Georgia Republican chairman, said he saw a chance that Jewish voters, particularly younger ones, could begin moving to the Republican column in 2004 in part because of Bush's support for Israel. "There's clearly something going on -- it's tangible, it's palpable, and it could have a real impact," Reed said. Bush captured 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000; Reed said he could get 30 percent in 2004.
For now the Israeli-Palestinian issue is stalled. Many of those interviewed for this article said they expect no movement before the resolution of the Iraq issue. State Department officials confided privately that they feel sidelined, and that the debate inside the administration has ended, at least temporarily.
Diplomacy is now, at least nominally, in the hands of "the quartet" -- the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. Its members have drafted a "road map" outlining next steps toward a Mideast peace deal, including an end to violence and cessation of all settlement activity by the Israelis. In recent months Israel has sharply escalated settlement activity in the West Bank. In an interview with The Washington Post, Sharon recently dismissed the quartet as "nothing -- don't take it seriously."