Bush's Politicking at Israel's Knesset Neglects His Role in Hamas' Election Win

| Thu May. 15, 2008 11:08 PM PDT

You've likely already read about Bush using the opportunity of his address to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, yesterday to liken all those who would negotiate with "terrorists and radicals" to Nazi appeasers -- and Democrats' swift and outraged response.

Beyond the fact that Bush's own administration has repeatedly offered to negotiate with Tehran should Iran suspend uranium enrichment, and that his top diplomat in Iraq has talked with his Iranian counterparts, as has his former ambassador to Afghanistan, both with the White House blessing, as well as the ongoing negotiations with Pyongyang, Libya, and the Syrian deputy foreign minister's visit to Annapolis; beyond those recent demonstrated exceptions in action to Bush's rhetoric (I guess the word for it is "hypocrisy"): It's also worth pointing out, as several Israeli security officials and political observers have recently done to me here, a bit of recent history Bush neglected to mention at Israel's parliament. That Israel and the Palestinian Authority have chiefly him to thank for Hamas having a degree of political legitimacy it otherwise would not have had. After all, they point out, it was the Bush administration that "twisted the arm" of Israeli and Palestinian leaders against considerable resistance and skepticism on their part to allow the Palestinian militant group Hamas to run in 2006 Palestinian elections that Hamas won -- an outcome to its policy interventions that the Bush administration once again failed to anticipate.

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"It never occurred to them, as in Iraq, that the two goals – regime change and democracy – may not work together," Jerusalem-based writer Gershom Gorenberg recently told me. "That psychology left them open to the idea that on the one hand they can have their cake and eat it too. You could get rid of Arafat, have democratic elections and you will get Republicans." Or so the Bush administration wished.

"And the Israelis completely didn't agree," Gorenberg added.

Such Israeli (and Palestinian moderates') skepticism about the Bush administration's naive and wishful thinking that elections would swiftly topple militants proved correct. "This administration, which says it has a principled approach [of not talking to terrorists], is the very administration that in 2006 twisted the arm of the Israeli government and of the Palestinian authorities and forced them both to accept Hamas as a participant in the elections," former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy told me. "When the result of the election was a surprise, the immediate reaction was, 'Okay, We don't like this result, so we'll change the rules.' ... The administration is inconsistent in its approach."

And equally inconsistent in the case of Lebanon, Halevy adds. "By the way, the Bush administration was inconsistent on elections in Lebanon as well. In the past, there had been a golden rule that you cannot go to the ballot box with a gun in your belt. This rule was waived twice at [the urging of the Bush administration] in the Palestinian case and also waived in the case of Lebanon."

Furthermore, Bush's military commanders and diplomats have been talking with the guys with guns quite a bit in Iraq in recent months -- and arming them too, Halevy notes. "The administration has been flexible and has been able to be flexible, when it came to Iraq," Halevy says. "When they ascertained that the only viable option to turn events in Iraq at least partially if not entirely in a different direction, they went to Anbar province. They contacted people close to Saddam Hussein, who had been acting against the US presence in iraq, who had been carrying out operations against American servicemen and causing American deaths, and they made a deal with them. And they found these warriors in Anbar province very effective and very good and it was an excellent thing to do."

"Why do the rules of Iraq not apply here?" Halevy asks. "If they can be pragmatic in Iraq, why are they ideological in Palestine?"

Good question. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

I asked one of Israel's premier Iran experts, David Menashri, what he thought of Bush's speech at the Knesset. He said he thought Bush was trying to show solidarity with Israel, where many officials at least publicly describe an Iran led by Ahmadinejad with a nuclear weapon as an existential threat to their country. By using the "Munich" comparison, in other words, Bush was symbolically telling Israel that he shared that view.

Menashri supports the US trying to dialogue with Iran, although he's not optimistic such negotiations would succeed. Halevy also supports talking with Iran, and told me that if the US does so, Israel has to be in some way at the table, since the issues involved so impact Israel's vital national security interests. (Incidentally, Halevy says Israel is indestructable, for a variety of reasons, alluding to its own nuclear arsenal, but not only. He also believes negotiations with Iran can work to persuade it to abandon its nuclear program).

Quite a lot of chutzpah for Bush to characterize the likes of Halevy and his colleagues who have spent decades in the trenches trying to promote their nation's security and who advocate engagement as Nazi appeasers.

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