A few weeks before President Bush delivered his speech on the future of Israeli- Palestinian peacemaking, an American Jewish leader picked up the phone and called the White House.
She had just read in The New York Times that Bush was going to propose a firm timeline toward a Palestinian state, something Israel bitterly opposed. The response from a White House official, she says, told her that everything would be okay.
“He said, ‘Be careful what you read,’ ” the Jewish official said. ” ‘There won’t be a timeline.’ “
In the weeks before Monday’s historic address, media fodder and gossip had led many in the American Jewish community to wonder what was going to be unveiled.
Much had been made of the split between the White House and State Department in crafting the speech, and there was concern that the parade of Arab leaders to the White House was influencing the Bush administration to expedite the creation of a Palestinian state, which Jewish leaders said would be tantamount to rewarding terrorism.
At each point, however, the White House assured Jewish leaders that their worst fears would not be realized. White House officials told the leaders, in essence, to ignore comments coming out of the State Department, and focus only on what the White House was saying.
“I knew for a long time that the president was 100 percent with us,” said one Jewish leader, who asked not to be identified. “The question was when they were going to come out fighting.”
Bush did just that on Monday, calling for Palestinians to seek “leaders not compromised by terror,” an indirect dismissal of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
While Bush said he hopes a Palestinian state can be formed within three years, he made it heavily contingent upon changes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including new parliamentary elections, effective work against terrorism and reform of governing institutions.
Analysts say Bush came to his conclusions despite the contradictory advice he was receiving from international leaders — and even from his own administration. Essentially, Bush’s final declaration was apparently based on his gut feeling; he even toughened the speech after two deadly suicide bombings in Israel last week.
Jewish leaders say they are not sure how much influence they themselves had on the president’s thinking. Some say that no amount of pressure could have moved Bush in a direction that he did not instinctively want to go.
But active Jewish and Israeli efforts may have helped mold the speech and give it teeth.
“We met with a variety of administration officials to consult and talk about the situation and the proposed speech,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League, who added that he met with officials from the White House, State Department and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.
Many Jewish leaders stressed the need to move away from a strict timeline for a Palestinian state toward a series of performance benchmarks, including a restructuring of the Palestinian Authority’s security and governmental institutions.
Jewish officials also stressed to the White House that suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks have an enormous impact on the prospect for peace talks, and that continued violence would destroy any type of progress.
Jewish officials also recommended establishing plans without regard to Arafat, effectively marginalizing him.
The president’s staff seemed to be interested in equating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to America’s war on terrorism.
By hearkening back to the “Bush Doctrine” against terror, Jewish and Israeli officials said they were able to influence certain aspects of the president’s remarks, including his call that the Palestinians no longer allow themselves to be pawns to larger forces and recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself against terror attacks.
Others noted that Bush’s comments were similar to statements he has made on Iraq, where the United States is seeking a “regime change.”
The Jewish pressure stemmed largely from media reports that showed a sharp division on the direction of Mideast policy within the administration. The overarching view was that the State Department believed a firm timeline toward statehood would give the Palestinians a reason to work toward peace. The White House countered that Palestinian reform was necessary before a state could be granted.
Without a clear understanding of who was winning the internal struggle, some Jewish leaders tried to push their arguments.
“It was not something that required a lobbying effort,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We communicated our concerns, and most of it was responses to media reports.”
Originally, there were concerns that American Jewish opinion was being ignored completely. Some meetings had been scheduled for after the date on which the speech originally was expected to be given.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sought and was granted an additional meeting with Bush earlier this month amid concerns that Bush was more seeking more Arab than Israeli opinions.
“Clearly, a lot of the people he was hearing from were saying things he did not agree with,” a senior Israeli official said. “But there was confidence that at the end of the day he would not surprise us.”
As time passed and debate continued within the administration, Jewish leaders were given more opportunities to speak.
“This was in the seventh and eighth innings for a long time,” said Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now.
“We got our shot at talking to people that counted,” Rosenblum said, noting that he was pleased with the overall tone of the speech, but disappointed at the lack of balance between heavy initial requirements on the Palestinian Authority and later requirements on Israel.
The White House has acknowledged that last week’s suicide bombings postponed the speech and made the president “more resolute” that alternative Palestinian leadership was needed to end the conflict.
Privately, White House officials said first-person accounts from Jewish leaders who were in Israel during those attacks added an emotional ingredient to the policy debate.
“We wanted to make sure the president knew the stories of the victims,” an American Jewish leader said.
Hoenlein, in Jerusalem for a meeting of the World Zionist Congress, sent a letter to Bush describing victims he met at a Hadassah hospital. He also passed along a request from victims’ families that Bush help prevent future attacks.
Some Jewish officials complained that the White House hardly sought out Jewish groups for consultation. Only those who proactively contacted the White House were heard, one leader said.
While a lot of groups did make their cases heard, there was not a lot of give-and-take with the administration, the leader added.
Given the speech’s content, however, he admitted that the argument may be moot.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.