Just days before the U.S. elections, the presidential candidates are sending the same broad messages about their approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the greater Middle East, but they differ sharply on the details. In exclusive interviews with JTA, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and Richard Holbrooke, a senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry, laid out their respective candidate’s vision for the Middle East over the next four years.
A second term of the Bush administration would hope to use Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as the start of new progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
“I think what you will see is, if Prime Minister Sharon is successful in moving forward on his disengagement plan, that that could provide a new impetus for the Palestinians to move toward reform as they get ready to take responsibilities in the Gaza, and it could provide an impetus then for a beginning of negotiations between the parties,” Rice said in a telephone interview from her White House office on Tuesday.
A Kerry White House would look to appoint an envoy to the region, not to force Israel to make concessions, but to pressure Arab governments to stop sponsoring terror, Holbrooke said in a separate interview.
“You go to Riyadh and tell these guys to stop supporting the worst anti-Israeli elements and the worst anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist literature around the world,” said Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He also said such an envoy could help reduce Israel’s isolation in the world.
Both advisers said their respective candidate would continue the policy of not talking to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and supported Israel’s plans to disengage from the Gaza Strip and to erect a security barrier in the West Bank.
In the minds of the campaigns, the battle for Jewish votes in this election has focused squarely on which candidate will do more to protect Israel and fight the war on terrorism.
The significance of the Jewish vote is what brought both Holbrooke and Rice to Florida this week to address a national gathering of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Both advisers are well respected in the Jewish community, and could, depending on who wins next week’s election, play leading roles in shaping U.S. foreign policy over the next four years.
The missions for the two advisers in talking to the pro-Israel community are very different.
Rice and the Bush campaign are working to boost the number of Jews, traditionally a Democratic voting bloc, who will back Bush’s re-election because they like his record on Israel.
Holbrooke and the Democrats, however, are working to maintain the voting bloc, and alleviate concerns Jewish voters may have about Kerry’s foreign policy, and specifically the envoy idea.
“If we have an envoy, if we have an effort in the region, it is not at Israel’s expense,” Holbrooke told the AIPAC gathering on Sunday.
“It is not unilateral concessions with no one to negotiate.”
Some Jewish activists say they think an envoy would pressure Israel to make concessions, and that Kerry’s support for a multilateral approach to foreign affairs would put more stock in the anti-Israel views of European and Arab states.
They also fear Kerry could appoint someone they see as anti-Israel, like former President Carter and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, both of whom Kerry mentioned in a speech earlier this year as possible candidates as envoy, but has long since dismissed.
Instead, Holbrooke said, an envoy could work in the region to press neighboring states to stop terrorism, singling out Saudi Arabia.
“This is not just about the Palestinian Authority,” he told JTA after the speech, saying the envoy would have immense difficulty dealing with any Palestinian leader, because Arafat would stifle the process.
Rice seemed to mock the envoy idea, suggesting that such a person would “wander around” the region, telling Arab countries things they already hear.
“It may well be that at some point in time, someone else can help in this process, an envoy, I wouldn’t rule it out,” Rice said. “But it’s not the answer, just sending somebody out there to wander around the Arab states and tell them they need to stop incitement. Everyone is telling them they need to stop incitement.”
While Jews across the political spectrum have praised Bush for isolating Arafat and supporting Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip and some West Bank settlements, critics say his administration has not been engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The critics say the White House should more actively push for Palestinian reforms and push both parties to move the process forward.
Rice responded to the criticism, saying: “We continue to be engaged with our Middle East partners, but we have really believed since the spring that the best chance for strong re-engagement will be when the Israeli disengagement plan goes forward.”
In both her address to AIPAC on Monday and in the interview, Rice said the Bush administration would rely heavily on support from states that still talk with Arafat, looking to them to help reform the Palestinian government and pressure Arafat to step aside.
“We can simply not afford to have a situation in which new Palestinian leadership does not emerge,” she said in the interview. “I believe that the international community increasingly understands that.”
She said Bush would continue to work from his vision outlined on June 24, 2002 — which focused on reforming the Palestinian Authority, isolating Arafat and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005 — and was gratified by signals from the Sharon government that he does not see the Gaza withdrawal as an end to the peace process.
“The United States has also been very concerned and very gratified that the Israelis have made clear that it is not Gaza only, that it is Gaza first with four settlements in the West Bank being a part of the initial parts of this, to demonstrate that there is a link between Gaza and the West Bank,” she said in the interview.
Cognizant of strong support for Bush’s Middle East policies among AIPAC loyalists, Holbrooke did not challenge the Republican’s Middle East credentials, but tried to place Kerry on the same tier, emphasizing that both candidates support Israel’s latest strategy.
“I don’t want us to have a contest over who is more or less pro-Israel, because I don’t think that’s in the national interest in a presidential campaign, when both men are supportive of Israel,” Holbrooke said in the interview.
But, he added, Kerry is better because he had never “played footsie with the Saudis.”
He also reiterated Kerry’s criticisms of Bush’s policy in Iraq.
And he said that he believed little progress could be made on the Israeli-Palestinian track until the situation in Iraq is stabilized.
Responding to this week’s news that explosives from Iraq may have gone missing, Rice defended U.S. action in the region and suggested the United States is on the course to making the Jewish state safer.
“I think you have to ask yourself — was Israel, or for that matter, the United States, safe prior to the invasion of Iraq?” she said. “I think what you had in the Middle East was a false sense of stability, where a tyrannical and dangerous regime like Saddam Hussein was actually not being contained.”
On Iran, Rice credited the president with putting Iran on the international agenda and said the nuclear threat posed by Iran could be handled diplomatically. She told the AIPAC gathering that the world needed to get tough and isolate Iran if it continues its nuclear weapons program, and that the matter would likely be handled in the United Nations Security Council.
“I think we can make diplomacy work here,” she said.
But Holbrooke disagreed. Referring to European efforts to neogtiate with Iran on the issue, he said: “Continuing the policy of letting the French, German and British represent an international coalition in Tehran will not succeed. Europe will never be an effective diplomatic tool without the United States taking the lead.”
Rice also said the Bush administration is continuing to have “pretty intense conversations” with Syria about its support for terrorist groups that target Israel.
“The Syrians, I would say, don’t seem to have gotten the message consistently,” she said. “But I’m confident that if we stay on course and continue to pursue that message, they, too, will understand there isn’t another course for them.”
Both advisers could be central in shaping future foreign policy.
Holbrooke is considered a front runner for secretary of state in a Kerry administration. And if he doesn’t get that post, he is talked about as a possible Middle East envoy.
While he would not speculate in the interview on possible positions if Kerry wins, he did seek to shore up his credentials. He said he had concerns about dealing with Arafat when he was at the United Nations and he stressed he was not part of the group associated with the failed Oslo peace plan.
“Oslo was an unsuccessful effort,” he said. “You can’t go back to that situation.”
Rice also would not speculate about the next four years if her boss is re-elected, but suggested her desire may not be to continue to serve the administration.
“I am an academic at heart and there’s a part of me that wants to go back to academic life,” she said. “But I have not made a decision at this time.”
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