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Bush will find Israel ambivalent

His first presidential visit comes with the nation split on whether he has helped or hurt.

January 08, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — For seven years, President Bush has been a distant defender of Israel, working from Washington to tilt America's policies in the Middle East more firmly behind its longtime ally.

When he arrives here Wednesday on his first presidential visit, however, Bush will find an ambivalent Israeli public. It is appreciative of his efforts, yet critical of U.S. setbacks that have made the region feel more threatening.

No recent president has been less involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations than Bush. But more explicitly than his predecessors, Bush has accepted the permanence of the biggest Jewish settlement clusters in the West Bank and opposed a massive return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. He supports the Israeli army's vigorous pursuit of militants in the Palestinian territories and Israel's construction, now nearly complete, of a barrier between its territory and the West Bank.

Israelis credit Bush's positions with helping protect them from Palestinian suicide bombers. But many fault him for pursuing sweeping regional goals that they fear have backfired.

Though Israelis are grateful that Saddam Hussein is gone, they worry that the U.S. intervention in Iraq has benefited Israel's more dangerous enemy, Iran, better enabling Tehran to pursue the development of nuclear weapons.

Israeli officials view Bush's effort to promote Arab democracy, a theme the president will stress in the five Arab countries he visits after leaving here Friday, as naive and counterproductive because they say it has empowered Islamists and Iranian clients in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.

And as Bush steps tardily into the role of peace broker, Israelis are divided on whether they were helped or hurt by his years of willful disengagement and doubtful that he has enough time, clout or commitment to bring negotiations anywhere near an end.

It was just six weeks ago that Bush convened Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an international conference in Annapolis, Md., and promised to help them settle their decades-old conflict by the time he leaves office. Since then, however, the peace talks have made scant progress.

"Speaking strictly about his policy toward radical Islamism, Bush arouses sympathies in Israel for his strategies of commitment to turn back that danger," said Eran Lerman, a former Israeli intelligence officer who directs the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee. "But his mistakes have cost us dearly and have left us with a sense of doubt about the validity of the overall strategy."

On balance, Bush remains widely popular here, far more so than he is at home. In part this is because he leads the country most Israelis believe to be their only true ally, a conviction that has grown since Sept. 11, 2001, and the start of his administration's campaign against terrorism.

Three of every four Israelis say Bush's attitude toward Israel is friendly, and four in five believe the United States would come to Israel's aid if a crisis threatened its existence, according to a survey last year for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the Anti-Defamation League.

Israelis following the American presidential race are hard pressed to name a candidate who would be as "good for Israel" as Bush. During an Oval Office interview last week, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot half-jokingly assured Bush that in Israel he could be elected to a third term.

Yet Israelis sound as disillusioned as Americans do when discussing Bush's military intervention in Iraq.

"The Americans haven't learned from our lessons in the region or from their own in Vietnam," said Reuven Greenfeld, a 57-year-old retired police officer who was sitting at a cafe in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion.

By invading Iraq, Bush rid the region of a government that attacked Israel with missiles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, continued to menace its eastern front and compensated the families of Palestinian suicide bombers with $25,000 checks.

"Bush's policies regarding terror are right in principle, but you need smarts in addition to force," Greenfeld said. "The smart thing in Iraq would have been to get out quickly."

That is what then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon privately counseled Bush before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, even as much of Israel's foreign policy establishment publicly welcomed it. According to Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli negotiator, Sharon warned that occupying Iraq would radicalize the region and embolden Islamist enemies of Israel, including Iran.

Israeli leaders are haunted by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, despite the Jewish state's own unacknowledged nuclear deterrent. They were taken aback last month when a consensus report by U.S. spy agencies declared with "high confidence" that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and with "moderate confidence" that the program had not resumed.

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