Bush’s final days fraught with Israel-related developments

In George W. Bush's last days before joining the ranks of former presidents, the news and developments relating to the Middle East continue to pile up. (b2tse / Creative Commons)

In George W. Bush’s last days before joining the ranks of former presidents, the news and developments relating to the Middle East continue to pile up. (b2tse / Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Ehud Olmert was shocked: Condoleezza Rice wasn’t doing what she was told. The U.S. secretary of state was going to vote in favor of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire to the Gaza war.

So Olmert called Rice’s boss.

"’You can’t vote for this,’" the Israeli prime minister quoted himself as telling the leader of the free world. "And he gave an order to the secretary of state, and she didn’t vote for it. The resolution that she cooked up, she drafted, she organized, she manipulated, the whole thing, and she’s left pretty embarrassed!"

Israeli officials resolutely refused on Tuesday to comment on Olmert’s braggadocio-infused account of his conversation with President Bush, delivered to an audience in Ashkelon, a city that has been hit by rockets several times since the outbreak last month of Israel’s war with Hamas.

U.S. officials, including Rice, were less reticent. She said the claim was "fiction" in an interview Wednesday with Bloomberg Television.

"The prime minister was, I hope, quoted out of context, because the story that I read in the newspaper is fiction," Rice said.

"The president and I talked about the resolution, about the importance of allowing the council to send a signal even though the United States believed that the resolution was premature," she said. "And I had made it very clear that I thought the resolution was premature, and there were also concerns about a resolution that had Israel, a member-state of the United Nations, and Hamas, which is a terrorist organization — you don’t ever want there to be any equating those two.

"And so we talked. We talked about abstention as a good option. And I was quite aware of the president’s call to Prime Minister Olmert. Of course, Prime Minister Olmert is not at all aware of what the president said to me. And I repeat, his rendering of this is fiction — if, in fact, that was his rendering of it. And I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it’s not exactly what he said."

On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack had said that the idea "that somehow she was turned around on this issue is 100 percent completely untrue."

"All that afternoon, Thursday afternoon, Secretary Rice’s recommendation and inclination the entire time was to abstain. She was not at all embarrassed or ashamed of the actions that we took."

Olmert’s fury coupled with revelations over the weekend that Bush turned down Israel’s request for assistance in a possible attack on Iran is making for a fraught final two weeks to an administration famous for being friendly — if not the friendliest ever — to Israel.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee issued a rare attack on Bush administration policy in the wake of the Security Council vote, which after all was short of the veto that the president might have exercised — that would have prevented a call that is binding according to international law.

In a statement e-mailed to reporters, but not posted on its Web site, AIPAC expressed "its disappointment with the U.S. administration for succumbing to pressure exerted by Arab states and agreeing to bring this vote to the U.N. Security Council." The Anti-Defamation League also condemned the vote and noted its "surprise" at the U.S. decision not to veto the resolution.

"At a time when Israel is engaged in defending its citizens against the brutality of Hamas terrorism, which has unleashed an outpouring of anti-Semitic rhetoric, threats and intimidation and violence in the U.S. and around the world, we expected the administration to abide by its longstanding commitment to fighting global terrorism and the scourge of anti-Semitism and Israel’s role on the front lines of that fight," the ADL said.

So was the friendship all that?

Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, says yes, absolutely. The dust-up over the U.N. resolution was a typical disagreement among close friends — Olmert’s only mistake was going public with the down-and-dirty details.

"These comments should really be reserved for one’s memoirs," Foxman said.

Neither was Foxman fazed by the report in Sunday’s New York Times of Bush’s refusal to supply Israel with bunker-busting bombs, or to permit the Jewish state to traverse U.S.-controlled air space should it attack Iran in a bid to damage the Islamic Republic’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Those closely following U.S.-Israel relations were aware of Bush’s decisions and "and we understood," Foxman said.

"The decision there is, ‘what is America’s self-interest?’ America’s self-interest was that if this were to occur, it would put American lives in danger," he said. "It’s what I would expect the president to act on."

Noam Neusner, a former speechwriter for Bush and for a time his liaison to the Jewish community, agreed that the matter of the U.N. vote was relatively insignificant.

"For practical purposes, Bush has been a solid defender of Israel’s position," he said.

Bush’s news conference Monday, in which the president steadfastly insisted that any cease-fire should first ensure an end to Hamas rocket fire, "would be a better indicator of his position and the administration’s position than the non-vote at the United Nations," Neusner said.

He wasn’t as sanguine about Iran, saying the Bush administration’s failure to stop Iran’s nuclear program is "one of the major legacies for pro-Israel Bush defenders to grapple with."

"We know he’s strongly opposed to the nuclear program, we know he’s aware why Iran wants a nuclear weapon, but this latest incident may raise another uncomfortable question," Neusner said.

Neusner cautioned, however, that Bush’s refusal to assist Israel in such an attack did not diminish his status as Israel’s closest friend.

"The question to be asked is whether any U.S. president would let Israel overfly Iraq," he said. "The answer, clearly, is no. There are certain situations where Israel cannot count on unconditional U.S. support; flying over Iraq on a bombing mission is one of them. Even among close friends there are differences."

Neusner also noted that Bush calmed Israeli fears, according to The New York Times article, by sharing with Israeli leaders details of U.S. efforts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program through interference with Iran’s efforts to buy materiel and with "experiments" that the Times did not explain, apparently at the behest of the U.S. intelligence community.

Bush defenders were eager to explain the non-veto/non-vote at the Security Council as the natural attrition of all secretaries of state toward Foggy Bottom’s insistence of even-handedness.

"Unfortunately, particularly in the last year, on a number of fronts, as the administration’s days come to an end, career foreign service officers are guiding the secretary of state’s polices," said one former official who worked both for Bush and for Rice. "I remember the secretary being told to push Israel during the [2006] Lebanon War, and her pushing back, saying the president would never pressure Israel when it’s under attack. She’s traveled quite a road since then."

A road traveled too late, according to Bush critics who hope that President-elect Barack Obama will redress what they see as Bush’s years of neglecting Middle East peace.

Bush’s perceived deference to Israel was less friendship than a failure of the imagination, said Diane Balser, the executive director of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a dovish pro-Israel group.

"In recent months, Olmert has made some very good statements about peace," she said. "There should have been some openness to work with him — but that would have meant hard work, not platitudes."

Steve Clemons, a senior analyst with the liberal New America Foundation, said that Bush’s closeness to Israel made leaders of the Jewish state overconfident and ultimately damaged its interests.

"The biggest thing Israel needs to contribute to is, if not in substance, then in the optics of American success in the Middle East," he said.

Making the Bush administration seem subservient to U.S. interests undermines that case and will empower Israel’s critics in the incoming Obama administration.

"The more our power is doubted, the more at risk Israel is," Clemons said. "For Israel, even in the ridiculous gestures of an outgoing prime minister, it undermines them, puts a hole in its security levee."

Olmert has resigned to face corruption charges and is waiting out a Feb. 10 election.

A sign that Bush administration officials see Olmert’s remarks as damaging was the effort to refute them: Hence the State Department’s resolute denial of the Israeli’s version of events.

A report leaked last week to the Weekly Standard said the decision to abstain was the result of discussions featuring Rice, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser. Hadley’s preference was to abstain, according to the report.

Yet a Reuters report published Jan. 9 — within hours of the vote and days before Olmert spoke — correlates with Olmert’s account, quoting diplomats as saying that Rice favored voting for the resolution and switched gears only after a last-minute call from Bush.

John Bolton, who formerly answered to Rice as U.N. ambassador, was scathing in his criticism of how Rice handled the vote.

"A permanent member’s abstention invariably reflects that it failed to achieve its objectives," he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "It also signals timidity."

 

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