WASHINGTON — President Bush's decision to advance the Middle East "road map" in the year before his reelection campaign represents a break with a cardinal rule of presidential politics. Presidents are supposed to touch the Israeli-Arab conflict only during the first two years of their first term. After that, hands off.
That is why President Nixon put forth the Rogers plan in 1969, President Carter embraced the Sadat initiative in 1977, President Reagan announced his plan in 1982 and President Clinton held the Oslo peace accord signing in 1993. As one former White House hand told me: "Push Israel toward peace before an election? A president would have to be nuts."
Bush is certainly not nuts and, more to the point, neither is Karl Rove, the presidential advisor who makes sure that political consequences are considered in nearly every policy decision. Certainly, Rove was consulted before Bush decided to push the road map. And it is safe to assume that he told the president that pursuing peace in the Middle East is not necessarily a political loser. If he thought otherwise, it is unlikely that Bush would have announced his support for the road map, no matter how persuasive British Prime Minister Tony Blair was.
The road map represents the best opportunity for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the 31 months since the intifada began, and Bush, following his Iraq war victory and with no fears of political reprisal at home, is uniquely positioned to push for a breakthrough.
Until now, Bush studiously avoided Mideast diplomacy. That he is reversing course suggests he and Rove believe Bush's high standing in the polls will survive a test of the waters. On the other hand, the president still has plenty of time to pull back, particularly if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refuses to budge. The Israeli leader's refusal to accept the road map during Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's recent visit, coupled with his statement that a settlements freeze is not "on the horizon," are not good signs.
Many in Washington assume Bush will retreat. Some cite his failure to even mention the road map in his recent speech on a Middle East free-trade zone as evidence he has. This month, Jack Abramoff, a pro-Israel Republican close to House leaders, said, "I don't think [Bush] gets anything politically if he has a peace deal." Abramoff is surely wrong. The president who achieves a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will certainly reap political benefits, especially among Jews.
Abramoff may have the process rather than the eventual deal in mind. Because no agreement can be achieved without Israeli concessions, and because Israel is unlikely to make concessions except under U.S. pressure, it is not unreasonable to assume any president applying it will alienate pro-Israel voters.
There is not much hard evidence to support that view, however. American Jews are not -- have never been -- single-issue voters. The most distinctive thing about the Jewish vote is not that it turns on Israel (it doesn't) but that, in presidential elections, this affluent community joins African Americans and non-Cuban Latinos in consistently voting for the Democrat. The old joke is that "Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans."
Besides, American Jews have consistently supported the peace process. According to polls, Jews strongly supported Carter's Camp David deal, in which Israel exchanged the Sinai Peninsula for a peace treaty with Egypt. And they supported the Oslo peace agreement at least as strongly: Representatives of every major American Jewish organization were on the White House lawn standing and cheering the handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. With even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee nominally supporting the road map -- and no mainstream Jewish organization opposing it -- Bush has little if anything to fear from the organized community, and even less from the vast majority of Jews who are unaffiliated.
Nor will Bush's Democratic opponents succeed in persuading Jewish voters that Bush is anti-Israel, not when they supported Clinton in promoting Oslo and in pushing then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to offer the Palestinians more than 90% of the West Bank and Gaza and parts of Jerusalem. They could not credibly attack Bush for doing the same things for which they applauded Clinton.