The Zion Game

When Al Gore and George Bush got together several weeks ago at Wake Forest University for their second debate (you remember, this was the friendly encounter, the one where the two men sat side by side like colleagues at a Charlie Rose-style table), the most memorable thing about the evening was the vice-president’s extraordinarily limp performance.

Mostly lost in all of the post-debate bleating about Gore’s feckless search for the right (as in least annoying) persona was a curious Bush moment. Asked about racial profiling, an issue usually focused on the mistreatment of blacks, the governor chose instead to address a different minority community. “Arab Americans are racially profiled in what’s called ‘secret evidence,’ ” he said in his inimitable way, referring to the information used by immigration officials and airline personnel. “People are stopped, and we got to do something about that.”

Since that evening, he’s met behind closed doors with members of Michigan’s substantial Arab community (who emerged looking very happy), and he’s received the endorsements of all the most important Arab-American organizations. None of which, by itself, amounts to much more than the ordinary campaign-mode reaching out (pandering, if you’re a cynic). After all, Bush and Gore are both battling hard for Michigan, a key state that’s still up for grabs, and it’s possible that Arab voters (4 percent of the state’s voting population) could be the deciding bloc. Gore has also tried reaching out to Michigan’s Arab Americans, though he’s been much less successful.

But the governor’s attempt to win over the Arab community has raised serious concerns among American Jews, concerns that have become much more acute given the current Middle East crisis. No one has forgotten that his father’s administration tilted away from Israel. (Or that James Baker, his father’s secretary of State and closest of friends, was famously quoted as saying, “Fuck the Jews; they didn’t vote for us anyway.”) Nor has anyone forgotten that Israel was instructed during the Gulf War to simply suck it up for the greater good and take Iraq’s Scud attacks without responding.

Because of all this, and the governor’s generally disengaged demeanor, a lot of Jews are very worried about a Bush victory. Their most urgent and conspicuous concern is what U.S. policy toward Israel will look like if Bush becomes president. To put it plainly, they want to know if George Bush is good for the Jews.

“There’s no question that in a Bush administration a lot of attention will be given to what’s said by the moderate Arab states, and they tend to be cynical about the Arab-Israeli peace process.”

It used to be pretty simple. If a candidate was energetically pro-Israel at all times, then of course he was thought to be good for American Jews. Now, however, it’s become considerably harder to define what pro-Israel means.

A perfect example is Martin Indyk, America’s ambassador to Israel. “Indyk speaks Hebrew and has a deep commitment to Israel,” says Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. “Yet he’s pursuing policies which, looked at coldly, like his call for dividing Jerusalem, are classically those of people considered anti-Israel.”

Making it more difficult is that, even as the current crisis deepens, we’re actually getting less and less information from the candidates. Would Bush’s priority be an Israeli-Palestinian agreement? And at what cost? Would he micromanage the process and stake his personal diplomatic currency on its success, as Bill Clinton has? Or would he step back, let the parties act on their own, and stay on the sidelines, even if a low-intensity conflict becomes the status quo? What does his repeated use of the phrase “not on our timetable” mean, anyway? Because despite popular misconceptions, it was Israeli prime minister Barak who pushed for the most recent Camp David summit, not Bill Clinton.

In fact, it may be that the only thing that can be said about Bush with any real certainty on this subject–beyond his often-repeated platitudes about Israel being America’s friend and how he supports the peace process–is that Bush would’ve been thrilled if Bill Clinton had simply taken care of the problem for him. (Gore, too, must not be looking forward to inheriting that mess.)

“What they’re going to find, however,” says Middle East expert Stephen Cohen, “is that not only hasn’t the problem been put to bed, but the tiger has woken, he’s woken up angry, and he’s going to be in their living room on Inauguration Day.”

Despite the continuing violence in Israel and the West Bank, if Bush becomes president-elect on November 7, meaningful negotiations are likely to come to a screeching halt; the peace process will effectively be frozen for six months. (If Gore wins, there is a possibility things can still move forward before the transition, since he is part of the current administration.)

“The Arabs will think they can get a better deal from Bush,” says Cohen, “so they’ll wait. This means Bush will have to hit the ground running.”

Given his inexperience and his apparent reluctance to get elbow-deep in the muck of policy disputes, a victorious Bush will have to get somebody working on his behalf immediately. “There’s little question that what Bush does in the Middle East will be the result of who he talks to and who he surrounds himself with,” says Steven Spiegel of the Israel Policy Forum and UCLA.

“We surely know what one change will be in a Bush presidency,” says Marshall Breger, a law professor and former special assistant to President Reagan. “Clinton threw himself into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heart and soul. He was a friend to both sides. We won’t have that with Bush. There’s not the same intensity of feeling and emotion about this.”

Which makes his appointments to key policy positions that much more important. The smart money says that Bush will name Colin Powell as his secretary of State and Condoleeza Rice as his national-security adviser. But throughout the campaign, his go-to guy on Israel has been Dov Zakheim, an Orthodox Jew and an arms expert who has a long history in Republican politics. Must be aggressively pro-Israel, right? Well … not exactly. It’s been said there’s never been an arms sale to Israel that Dov Zakheim has liked.

Bush also talks to conservative stalwarts Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and George Schultz. And it’s been said about Perle that there’s never been a peace deal good enough for him. All of which means that amid the disagreements and unpredictability of his advisers, the steady, guiding hand may well turn out to be Dick Cheney.

There is a perception that a Bush-Cheney administration would see Israel as a less significant strategic ally than has been the case in the past. After all, both men have strong oil-industry connections, and Cheney was a key player in Bush Sr.’s administration–back when James Baker and Brent Scowcroft clearly thought Israel was a burden.

“There’s no question that in a Bush administration, a lot of attention will be given to what’s said by the moderate Arab states,” says Spiegel. “And they tend to be cynical about the Arab-Israeli peace process. But Cheney is the big player here. He has the respect of both the Arabs and the Israelis. You could end up with a scenario in which the vice-president is the mediator.”

Cohen agrees, and goes one step further. “As unimportant as Cheney has been during the campaign, he’ll do a lot of the heavy lifting in a Bush government. His ear will be attuned to the moderate Arab states telling him they can’t afford the high risk of a prolonged low-intensity conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians because it’s destabilizing in their countries. Now that the Arab summit is over, these leaders want high-level, high-intensity diplomacy and they will expect it, under Bush, to have an Arab-states twist.”

In any discussion of policy tilts, of warmer or colder relations with Israel, it’s important to remember one thing. Even as the landscape gets more difficult to navigate, American policy in the Middle East has, for three decades, generally been an island of bipartisanship. Each administration has accepted, in broad strokes, a land-for-peace strategy as a way to move forward. The differences are often largely tonal.

It is, in Daniel Pipes’s words, the difference between the words and the music. Between the sensibility and the actual policy. Jews will, by and large, embrace those people with whom they believe they have an emotional rapport, which means someone they feel has a deep understanding of their security concerns.

That’s why Bill Clinton could have America abstain rather than vote against a U.N. resolution condemning Israel, without a major outcry. “In the end,” says Pipes, “establishing that rapport is more important than any specific policy.”

Bush Sr. never really understood this. It remains to be seen whether his son has learned from his mistakes.

The Zion Game