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Back to the Brink Again
As this column goes to press, the prayers of the Jewish world and decent people everywhere are with Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped last weekend by Palestinian terrorists.
Shalit was was wounded and dragged off into the terrorist sanctuary of Gaza while two of his comrades were murdered at a border outpost.
The ultimate outcome of this horrifying and brazen act is far from certain. Though there are a number of possible scenarios that may be played out, the most likely involves an Israeli reinvasion of the Gaza Strip.
Such an operation's primary aim would surely be to put an end to the use of the strip as a missile launching pad that has peppered the Israeli town of Sederot with Kassams on a daily basis, as well as halt the massive buildup of Palestinian terror groups in Gaza, such as the ones who snatched Shalit.
From Jenin to Gaza
In other words, Israel may soon be right back where it was in the spring of 2002, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forced by a Palestinian suicide bombing offensive to reoccupy Arab cities, such as the terror nest in Jenin, which spawned false charges of an Israeli "massacre."
Such a course of action will, no doubt, mean the loss of life on both sides, as well as an intensification of the barrage of anti-Israel invective from Europe and the international media.
Clearly, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his less than inspiring Defense Minister Amir Peretz are being put to the test by the Palestinians. None of us knows whether they will wilt or rise to the Churchillian standard of defiance that transformed Ariel Sharon from a right-wing pariah into a leader that had the confidence of the vast majority of his compatriots.
But Olmert and Peretz aren't the only ones who will be tested by this situation. Today, as was the case when Sharon hesitated during the height of the second intifada, the eyes of the world will also be on Washington.
Though it was only four years ago, many have probably already forgotten that it was by no means a certainty that Sharon would get the figurative green light from the Bush administration for a counter-offensive meant to halt the slaughter of Israeli innocents that was then going on.
Throughout the first year of the administration, the loudest voice from Washington seemed to be that of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was a consistent advocate of Israeli restraint, even in the face of a horrendous toll of casualties from suicide bombings. In the end, Bush's personal animus for Yasser Arafat, the venerable terrorist at the head of the Palestinian Authority and his trust in Sharon prevailed.
Though it would be an exaggeration to claim that Sharon had a blank check from Washington to do whatever he needed to do to squelch the intifada, there's no question that Bush's support was essential to what followed. Despite the howl of international protest that greeted Sharon's counter-attack, the United States had Israel's back. Despite the false atrocity stories and the widespread delegitimization of Israeli self-defense put forward by much of the international press, the United States would not budge.
That offensive and the buildup of the security barrier that Sharon decided to start building crushed the intifada. Whatever faults may be imputed to this administration - and in the wake of the Iraq war and the bitter partisan disputes that recent elections have spawned - Bush's decision to back Sharon was crucial.
But a lot has changed since 2002. In the intervening four years, Bush announced his support for a Palestinian state but made it clear that such a polity could only be created by an accountable democratic Palestinian leadership that eschewed terror (i.e., not Arafat), and that the final borders would have to accommodate the post-1967 demographic realities of the West Bank (i.e., the bulk of the Jewish settlements would stay, though this promise would be watered down with weasel words about Palestinian acceptance of such a deal).
Arafat died and was replaced by Mahmoud Abbas, who would be elected Palestinian president in a reasonably fair election. That made him popular in Washington, and pressure to coddle Abbas soured Bush's relationship with Sharon.
With Sharon having been replaced by Olmert, there is reason to question whether the president would back up the new prime minister the way he did his predecessor. That is especially true, since it would mean the sacrifice of a tangible concession that earned both the United States and Israel international plaudits - the withdrawal from Gaza.
Another major difference is that Iraq, not Israel, is the administration's preoccupation these days. Since Saddam's toppling, keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quiet so as to facilitate more support for the war effort has been the priority.
Will Politics Matter?
Cynics will also wonder whether a re-elected Bush - albeit one with an eye on the fall midterm elections - will have as much incentive to woo presumably pro-Israel Jewish voters who for the most part never voted for him anyway.
Yet if there was any political factor that really motivated Bush to support Sharon in 2002, it had to be the pro-Israel activism of Christian conservatives, not the Jews. It was their full-court press on the White House that spring which reminded Bush and his staff that their base cared deeply about the issue.
Would it happen again the same way? Don't bet against it!
Despite the disdain they still inspire among Jews, conservative Christians are still all-out backers of Israel, even if many are not thrilled with Olmert's proposed strategy of retreat from more territory in favor of a stronger Jewish majority and internationally recognized borders. And that is a factor that GOP strategist and Bush adviser Karl Rove understands.
But should Bush give Israel another green light, it will mean more than having the guts to brave the opposition of our European "allies." In 2002, all Bush had to do was to acknowledge that the strategies of past administrations of both parties had failed. Now, it is his strategy for dealing with the Palestinians that is failing.
The withdrawal from Gaza and the planned pullback from parts of the West Bank is still in Israel's ultimate demographic interest, but there's no question that the security situation is now a nightmare. It will be tough for Olmert to face up to this.
And it will be just as hard for Bush to acknowledge that promoting the powerless Abbas and the myth of his supposed moderation while trying to isolate the democratically elected Hamas terrorists is also not working.
Given the willingness of the Palestinians to prioritize their terrorist war over the creation of their own state, can Bush avoid the conclusion that Israel must be allowed to defend itself?
Like it or not - and whether or not he wishes to be distracted from the struggle in Iraq - the president is soon going to be faced with a choice he cannot avoid. For the sake of his Israeli ally, and the long-term security interests of the United States, let's hope he chooses wisely.