Monday, February 27, 2006

Bush, Jews and Hamas

By William Fisher

On the heels of the surprise victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary election, President George W. Bush is discovering just how difficult it is to try to herd a bunch of cats.

Some members of his ordinarily supportive Jewish-American pro-Israel constituency are distinctly unhappy that Bush insisted on holding on-time elections, producing what they consider to be disastrous results. Others are suspicious that, despite his rhetorical assurances not to have anything to do with terrorists, he has left the door a bit ajar and may be pressured by his European and Arab allies into resorting to realpolitik. Mirroring the sentiments of the Israeli right-wing, powerful groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) want that door slammed shut until Hamas agrees to recognize Israel’s right exist and renounces violence.

And U.S. fundamentalist groups on the Christian right, which have been strong supporters of Israel of late, take pretty much the same view as their more hawkish Jewish-American counterparts.

These groups are vital constituencies in Bush’s base. Both have lots of influence in the White House and in the House and Senate and, with Congressional elections due next November, could make the President’s life almost as complicated as dealing with Hamas.

A further complication is that the Jewish community in the U.S. is far from homogenous. As in Israel, American Jewry has a smaller, less well financed, but increasingly vocal left wing.

Emblematic of this faction is Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. This national organization of American Jews is headed by Marcia Freedman, a former member of the Knesset. It is committed to a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It says many American Jews share this perspective, but are reluctant to express themselves for fear they may bring harm to Israel and the Jewish people. And it has rejected the knee-jerk “no play-no pay” approach of the U.S. House of Representatives.

While saying it is “deeply troubled” by the Hamas victory because its charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and its resort to terror and violence that target innocent civilians, it is urging the Bush Administration “to maintain a cautious approach to the new Palestinian government, so as to preserve the future possibility of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.”
In a letter to President Bush signed by, at last count, 100 prominent rabbis, the group points out that the Palestinians conducted a free, fair, and democratic election, “something that is still too rare in this region”. It calls on Hamas to
"recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace", but also calls on Bush to embark upon “constructive engagement” with the new Palestinian government, to encourage “moderates such as President Mahmoud Abbas and sustain the ceasefire that has allowed for relative calm over the past year”.

The rabbis caution that deterioration in the plight of Palestinians “only increases support for extremism, which, in turn, endangers Israel.” They urge “continued funding for indirect assistance to the Palestinian people via NGOs, with the appropriate conditions to ensure that it does not reach the hands of terrorists.” They exhort the President “to leave open the door for those Palestinians who are committed to working for a negotiated, two-state resolution of this conflict.”

The nightmare scenario for this branch of American Jewry is that if the U.S. and the E.U. shut off funding for the Palestinian Authority, the PA will turn to Iran and to other anti-Israel Muslim states for resources.

At a time when Bush is preparing to start broadcasting into Iran, reaching out to Iranian students to come to the U.S., and planning financial support for Iranian pro-democracy NGOs, the emergence of an Iranian hegemon in Palestine looms as a major migraine.

The Bush Administration is also concerned that rejecting a freely-elected Hamas government will confirm the widely held perception that the U.S. is all for elections, providing they produce the result it wants. That would do further damage to the credibility of America’s crusade to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East – already in dangerously parlous condition in Iraq and elsewhere in the neighborhood. It is also likely to enhance the influence of Islamist political movements throughout the region and constrain America’s allies in the “Global War on Terror.”

The Bush Administration, along with the even more generous European supporters of “a new, improved” Palestinian Authority, clearly misread the temperature of Palestinian voters. But whether Palestinians voted for “terror” or for “change” is now irrelevant. The West is stuck with the facts on the ground. The election of Hamas was another stick in the eye of the Bush agenda.

Now, the so-called Quartet can move cautiously toward engagement or it can open the door for Iran to plant its flag deeply into Palestinian consciousness.

Which leaves the U.S. and its European friends with no good options at all. To implement a policy of “trust but verify”, Bush desperately needs all of American Jewry, plus the pro-Israel right-wing Christians, to present a supportive united front. This constituency is a major influence on the Government of Israel.

But, given the fractious rivalry of ideologies between these groups, it is far from a slam-dunk to think he’ll get it.