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As Israelis Struggle with Terrorism, They Understand Bush’s Predicament

June 25, 2002
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In the eyes of many Israelis, the man who holds the cards for their future is on another continent.

On the streets of Israel’s major cities, President Bush is seen as a strong ally. Israelis say they empathize with the complex challenges facing his foreign policy team in trying to create a new framework that will drag the Middle East away from violence and toward peace.

Even before Bush’s overwhelmingly pro-Israel speech on Monday — in which he essentially backed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s demand that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat be replaced before any peace process could resume — Israelis expressed a clear feeling that Bush was doing the best he could to support Israel.

While Israelis do sometimes express frustration with Bush’s decisions concerning the Middle East — for example, his occasional criticism of Israel’s military strikes against terror — Israelis seem to understand that the president has to juggle many balls when making policy.

“I think President Bush is very supportive,” said Ran Partock, a resident of French Hill in Jerusalem, the site of a suicide bombing on June 19. “I have been quite surprised.”

Many Israelis understand American politics almost as well as their own, and are able to rattle off the factors Bush has to deal with in policy-making. Among them are pressure from Arab leaders and Europe, which seek a more pro-Palestinian policy; conflict within the administration over how much effort to expend on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid the international war on terrorism; and concern that Bush not follow the path of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who risked a great deal of personal prestige in trying to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace, only to come up empty-handed.

Because of those factors, Bush’s policy on the Middle East has been hard to gauge. He came to office in January 2001 seeking to avoid deep involvement in the conflict, hoping to focus his attention on a possible war against Iraq.

As Israeli-Palestinian violence spiraled out of control, Bush was forced to get involved, but has been unable to break the deadlock between the two sides.

In a year and a half in office, Bush has sent numerous envoys to the region, including retired Marine commander Anthony Zinni, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney.

He became the first president to call officially for a Palestinian state, issuing the call at last year’s opening session of the United Nations, and has called on Israel to show restraint in its retaliation for terror attacks and for the Palestinian Authority to reform its institutions.

Israelis say they think Bush means well.

“He’s doing the best he can,” said Dov Sydney, a Tel Aviv resident. “He goes as far as he can go to help Israel, without crossing the line.”

One frustration Israelis express is the sense that the White House has lacked a fully developed plan. Some believe that the dissension within the government comes because the administration has no long-term vision for the Middle East, but deals with developments on an ad hoc basis.

“We need to know what he intends to do,” said Rina Zedek, sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe. “We keep being told what not to do and what to do, but without knowing what we are going to have to do in the long run.”

On Monday, she got her answer. In a long-awaited enunciation of his Middle East policy, Bush strongly backed Sharon’s approach that a change in Palestinian leadership and governing institutions is a prerequisite for progress toward peace.

“Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty,” Bush said.

“And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East,” he continued.

If anyone has the stature to break the bloody status quo in the region and move toward peace, it is the American president, Israelis say.

“He has all the power,” said Yair Salzman, a taxi driver in Jerusalem. “He can help us more than all the rest of them put together.”

Many here have resigned themselves to the eventual existence of a Palestinian state, and do not criticize Bush for saying it out loud.

Before Bush’s speech, Israelis were divided over whether giving the Palestinians a state now, in order to give them a “reason” to end violence, would be seen as some kind of payoff for terrorism.

Others say the immediate formation of a state would make Israel’s life easier, because the Palestinians would lose their argument for why they can’t help but resort to terrorism.

Violence might continue, but Israel would be able to deal with it on a state-to-state level — reducing the imbalance that has been so important in building international sympathy for the Palestinians. In addition, the Palestinians presumably would have to take more responsibility for their success or failure as a nation, and would find it more difficult to blame Israel for their own shortcomings.

In the meantime, the strongest criticism on the street is directed toward Sharon.

Though Sharon receives strong support in the polls, there is some level of frustration over his policies, from both political directions: Some right-wingers say Sharon is not doing enough to confront terrorism, while those on the left say he is not doing enough to pursue chances for peace.

Sharon’s latest policies — the construction of a fence near the Green Line to help keep potential terrorists out of Israel, and Israel’s military incursions in the West Bank — have strengthened his support among hard-liners.

And those who want a “political horizon” say they understand the rationale for the military and security moves, but hope they don’t set a bad precedent for dealing with the Palestinians.

“We cannot run away from them, they live next door,” said Dana Keder, walking toward the beach in Tel Aviv. “We need to protect ourselves, but be smart.”

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