By Ira Glunts
In a talk eerily reminiscent of his “Axis of Evil” speech, President George W. Bush told the Israeli Knesset on May 15 of his commitment to vanquish any group that opposes his vision of American hegemony in the Middle East. He specifically included Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda as the enemies in his “war against terror and extremism.” Oddly he did not include the Taliban, whom the US military is currently fighting in Afghanistan, on his list of Muslim enemies. Perhaps this is because his Israeli hosts do not perceive the Taliban as an immediate threat to their security.
It is difficult to know whether Bush’s exaggerated bellicosity derives from his desire to please the Israelis, play to his political base in the United States, or is simply another occasion for him to engage in the type of ominous sabre-rattling that has been characteristic of his administration. President Bush emphasized his dedication and resolve to press on with his aggressive foreign policy by proclaiming that the war on terror is “an ancient battle between good and evil.” Considering the current unstable political situation in both Gaza and Lebanon, plus the diplomatic crisis in US/Iranian relations, one has to wonder if the President’s words signify that the US has immediate plans for an increased military engagement in the region.
Bush began his remarks by praising Ariel Sharon as “one of Israel’s greatest leaders” and reiterating his provocative statement that the former Israeli Prime Minister was “a man of peace.” Sharon, who is considered the major architect of the Israeli settlements, is reviled among Palestinians. Apparently oblivious to how his Sharon statement compromised his credibility, Bush compounded his flight of fancy by telling his listeners that “Israel has always worked tirelessly for peace.” I imagine that many of the members of the Knesset in their self-serving obtuseness may actually believe that this is true, but to the rest of the world this is simply a statement that Israel will not, at least under Bush’s watch, be required to make any concessions to its enemies.
The present practice among American politicians is to shamelessly pander to Israeli and Jewish-American interests as they are understood and transmitted by lobbying groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Bush, rising to the celebratory occasion, did not disappoint his listeners. First Bush substituted the name “Eretz Yisrael” for Israel. This biblical term is generally associated with the settlers who believe that Israel should retain all of the West Bank. He then reiterated the false argument, albeit popular among Israelis, that to be against a Jewish state is anti-Semitic. This is obviously not true, since all Jews do not support the State of Israel, especially as it is represented by its current policies of occupation and human rights violations. Bush further endeared himself to his audience by comparing the futility of negotiating with the groups he labelled “terrorists” with trying to negotiate with the Nazis in 1939. The Israelis often recall the British appeasement of the Nazis when attempting to counteract criticism of their own actions. Ariel Sharon famously employed the appeasement argument to criticize the US for opposing his 2002 reinvasion of the West Bank. In that case, President Bush backed down from his blunt admonitions to the Israelis to withdraw their invading troops from Palestinian-controlled areas.
The Palestinians were notably excluded from Mr. Bush’s speech except for one brief mention of a future state. In the context of this speech, such a state could be easily interpreted as the truncated mini-state that many in the Israeli establishment would be willing to consider. There was no mention of the so-called Annapolis Peace Process that the Americans are currently sponsoring, and which Bush occasionally trumpets as his Israeli/Palestinian plan for peace. There was no mention of the ongoing creation and expansion of settlements, which the Bush administration sometimes timidly proclaims are not helpful in moving the peace process forward. These omissions surprised and delighted many of the Israelis who were present. The fact that Bush was so effusive in his praise of the Israelis and basically neglected the Palestinians was a clear signal that the President is not committed to the peace negotiations in which his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is now involved.
The best Bush could come up with as a rosy future for the Middle East in 60 years was decidedly modest. He described the relationship among nations there by stating “it doesn’t mean Israel and its neighbours will be the best of friends.” The American President’s hope for the region in the future is a Pax Isra-Americana over which the Arabs will have no choice.
What was most startling about the speech was Bush’s aggressive talk about Israel’s enemies and how the US was ready to act against the many groups that both countries consider “terrorists,” groups that in the US President’s mind, are beyond redemption. One such group is the Iranian government. The US administration’s war drums are beating louder and louder for military confrontation against Iran. There have been reports that the neocons in the government feel that now is the time for at least a “surgical” attack against that country’s nuclear sites. In Lebanon there is an increasingly unstable political and security situation where Hezbollah forces are flexing their military muscle. In 2006 Israel, with American backing, tried to vanquish Hezbollah, but failed. Will Bush now use the American military in Lebanon or encourage the Israelis to do so? In Gaza, Hamas is gaining support due to the failure of its opponents to deliver on their promise to improve conditions and achieve statehood. Could this bellicose tone from Bush signal that the Israelis have a green light for a massive reinvasion of the Gaza Strip, as proposed by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak?
In a speech filled with hyperbole and emotional appeals, Bush derided those who cannot “fathom the darkness in these men [the terrorists]” and those that harbor the “foolish delusion” that we can negotiate a peaceful settlement. This latter statement has been interpreted to be an implied criticism of ex-President Jimmy Carter who met with Hamas leaders recently. It has also been seen as directed against Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who, despite the pointed objection of administration officials and his Democratic primary opponent Senator Hillary Clinton, has continually expressed a willingness to negotiate with Syrian and Iranian leaders. Obama issued a statement which said that he has never advocated negotiating with terrorists. The Illinois Senator does not perceive the governments of Iran or Syria to be terrorists, as Bush does. Additionally, by criticizing those who want to talk to the terrorist enemy, Bush is again telling the Israelis that the US will not pressure them into engaging in mMeaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, since Hamas is part of the evil enemy. Unfortunately, like Bush Obama also considers Hamas a terrorist organization who is not an appropriate negotiating partner, despite its standing as a legally and democratically-elected government.
As we learned from the “Axis of Evil” speech, tough talk from George Bush can foreshadow disastrous consequences for both his enemies and the people of the United States who will be paying for his military adventures in countless ways for many years. Hopefully, Bush’s term will expire before he can act militarily against those whose names he called out during his speech. However, even if Bush does not order US forces into another ill-conceived military engagement, the next President will inherit not only the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a huge war lobby with a very effective propaganda machine, that will make it difficult for any US leader to avoid staying the same horrific course.
Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defence Forces in 1992. He lives in Madison, New York where he writes, works as a college librarian and operates a used and rare book business with his wife.