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Bush Is Herding Cats In The US Jewish Community

Bush Is Herding Cats In The American Jewish Community

By William Fisher

On the heels of the surprise victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, President George W. Bush is discovering just how difficult it is to try to herd a bunch of cats. Some members of his ordinarily supportive Jewish-American pro-Israel constituency are distinctly unhappy that Bush insisted on holding elections on time in the Palestinian territories, producing what they consider to be disastrous results. Others are suspicious that, despite the president's rhetorical assurances that his administration would not have anything to do with terrorists, he has left the door ajar and may be pressured by his European and Arab allies into somehow dealing with Hamas. Mirroring the sentiments of the Israeli right-wing, powerful groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee want that door slammed shut until Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces violence.

American Christian fundamentalist groups, meanwhile, which have been strong supporters of Israel of late, take much the same view as their more hawkish Jewish-American counterparts. Both these groups are vital constituencies for Bush, and have influence in the White House and in the House and Senate, particularly with congressional elections next November. Indeed, they could make the president's life almost as complicated as dealing with Hamas.

A further complication is that the American Jewish community is far from homogenous. As in Israel, American Jewry has a smaller, less well-financed, but also increasingly vocal, left wing. Emblematic of this faction is the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. This national organization of American Jews is headed by Marcia Freedman, a former member of Israel's Knesset. It is committed to a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The alliance says many American Jews share its perspective, but are reluctant to express themselves for fear they may bring harm to Israel and the Jewish people.

While saying it is "deeply troubled" by the Hamas victory because the movement's charter calls for the destruction of Israel, the alliance is urging the Bush administration "to maintain a cautious approach to the new Palestinian government, so as to preserve the future possibility of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table."

In a letter to Bush signed by (at last count) 100 prominent rabbis, the alliance points out that the Palestinians conducted a free, fair and democratic election, "something that is still too rare in this region." It calls on Hamas to "recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace"; but it also calls on Bush to embark upon "constructive engagement" with the new Palestinian government, to encourage "moderates such as President Mahmoud Abbas and sustain the cease-fire that has allowed for relative calm over the past year."

The rabbis caution that deterioration in the plight of Palestinians "only increases support for extremism, which, in turn, endangers Israel." They urge "continued funding for indirect assistance to the Palestinian people via NGOs, with the appropriate conditions to ensure that it does not reach the hands of terrorists." They exhort Bush "to leave open the door for those Palestinians who are committed to working for a negotiated, two-state resolution of this conflict."

The nightmare scenario for this branch of American Jewry is that if the United States and the European Union shut off funding for the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Authority (PA) will turn to Iran and to other Muslim states hostile to Israel for resources. At a time when Bush is preparing to start broadcasting into Iran, reaching out to Iranian students to come to the U.S., and planning financial support for Iranian pro-democracy NGOs, Iran's playing Palestinian politics looms as a major migraine.

The Bush administration is also concerned that rejecting a freely elected Hamas government will confirm a widely held perception that the U.S. is all for elections, providing they produce the results it wants. That would do further damage to the credibility of America's crusade to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East - already in dangerously uncertain condition in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. It is also likely to enhance the influence of Islamist political movements throughout the region and constrain America's allies in the "global war on terror."

The administration, along with the even more generous European supporters of "a new, improved" Palestinian Authority, clearly misread the temperature of Palestinian voters. But whether Palestinians voted for "terror" or for "change" is now irrelevant. The West is stuck with the facts on the ground. The election of Hamas was another stick in the eye of the Bush agenda. Now, the so-called "Quartet" (the U.S., the EU, Russia and the United Nations) can move cautiously toward engagement, or it can open the door for Iran to plant its flag deeply into Palestinian consciousness.

This leaves the U.S. and the EU with no good options at all. To implement a policy of "trust but verify," Bush desperately needs all of American Jewry, plus pro-Israel fundamentalist Christians, to offer a supportive united front. This constituency is a major influence on Israel. But, given the signs of rivalry between these groups, it is not certain Bush will get such a front.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He wrote this commentary originally for Lebanon's THE DAILY STAR.

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