George W. Bush: Bad for the Jews

Israel after 2004

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Los Angeles Times on November 7, 2004.

"Whatever else may be said of Yasser Arafat, his death will leave a dangerous leadership vacuum in the Mideast."

Whatever else may be said of Yasser Arafat, his death has left a dangerous leadership vacuum in the Mideast. Meanwhile, George Bush's victory has created a power surge in America that is pushing the nation toward one-party rule. This ought to concern all Americans. But speaking as a non-Jew, I think it ought to concern Jewish Americans most of all, for the welfare of Israel affects all the world's Jews, and the Republicans' power consolidation bodes especially ill for Israel in the post-Arafat era.

Written off as irrelevant when not despised as a terrorist, the president of the Palestinian Authority was nonetheless a secular leader whose movement, if not his person, kept alive the Jewish and Israeli hope for a secular alternative to the Islamist violence of Hamas and kindred smaller groups. But it seems highly unlikely that any secular successor to Arafat will achieve enough legitimacy and armed power to suppress Islamist terrorism entirely and thus vacate Israel's complaint that it has no Palestinian partner with whom to make peace. For security reasons, Israel is unlikely to relax its tight restrictions on movement of Palestinians within the territories enough to permit the kind of election that might bring to power a new leader combining street credibility with international legitimacy. With Arafat gone, then, Israel may have to cope in a new way with the full truth of its old complaint. If no adequately powerful and adequately secular Palestinian leader is either available or in prospect, what follows?

In persuading Israel to end its occupation of the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has sought to shed responsibility for 1.4 million Palestinians at the affordable cost of relocating Gaza's 7,500 or so Jewish settlers. But will the withdrawal have this effect? During the month leading up to the American presidential election, Israel's involvement in Gaza actually escalated. Israeli armed forces killed 159 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, about 30% of them civilians, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

If we grant that this toll-a 2-½-year monthly high-was necessary for security reasons, then we must infer that the grim necessity will continue, for Palestinian attacks have not been halted. On Nov. 1, an undeterred Palestinian suicide bomber killed three and wounded 32 others in Tel Aviv. In retaliation, a day later, Israel destroyed the homes of three Palestinian families in the West Bank town of Nablus.

So long as this cycle of incursions and retaliations continues, and it shows no sign of stopping, Israel will remain the effective ruler-the only effective ruler-of the 3.7 million Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip while continuing to govern the 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel. In other words, if Israel has no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate, then it is permanently stuck with the Palestinians themselves as a two-class subject population. And because these two Arab populations living-however differently-under de facto Israeli rule will soon outnumber Israel's Jewish population, thanks to a strikingly high birth rate, the Jewish-majority state must shortly become a Jewish-ruled state with an Arab majority.

I do not propose this demographic and political transformation as a solution but foresee it as a tragic outcome. Neither side wanted it or will ever want it. But it may nonetheless have become inevitable.

What might forestall it?

Neither voluntary nor forced Palestinian emigration is likely to do so. Though some Israelis may dream of "population transfer," no country in the world, least of all any neighboring country, will accept millions of penniless Palestinian refugees, some of them with a history of terrorism.

Until recently, commentators of every political stripe agreed that no nation but the United States had any hope of serving as mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and it remains true that the Bush Administration has endorsed a two-state diplomatic solution in principle. But only massive American intervention guaranteeing the security of both sides could impose such a solution. And the Bush Administration, which has shown no appetite for any such intervention, has now lost both the military and the diplomatic capacity for it.

Militarily, because the Iraqi occupation will continue for years, the United States cannot spare the manpower for a costly second Middle East mission that would fall between occupation and peace-keeping. Diplomatically, America's acceptability as an honest broker in any negotiation involving Arabs has been undercut by the Iraq war and by Bush's historic reversal-at a joint press conference last April in Washington with Sharon-of earlier American opposition to Israel's retaining and expanding its West Bank settlements, whose population is already in the hundreds of thousands and steadily growing. Since April 2004, Israel has announced plans to expand its West Bank settlements by an amount approximately equal to the size of the Gaza Strip settlements slated for shutdown.

On Oct. 6, 2004, Dov Weisglas, a close aide to Sharon, said in an interview with Haaretz, "The significance of our disengagement plan [in the Gaza Strip] is the freezing of the peace process. It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians. When you freeze the process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Effectively, this whole package called a Palestinian state, with all it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda." Sharon's office then quickly issued a statement saying that Israel supported the Bush Administration roadmap. However, it may well be that the roadmap, which supports in principle the creation of a Palestinian state, is compatible with the formaldehyde-that is, with the indefinite postponement of Palestinian statehood. Liberal Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy opened his first column after Bush's re-election with the words: "The United States has re-elected an enemy of Israel as its president." Headlines in mass-circulation Israeli newspapers have hailed Bush's re-election ("The Friend Stays"), as Levy noted, but he begs to differ. In the last sentence of his column, Levy wrote: "Bush is good only for perpetuating the occupation."

To this I would add only that the perpetuation of the occupation is creating a de-facto one-state political reality that may become permanent. Israel has approved compensation at $300,000 per family for the Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip. Estimates of their number range from 5,000 to 8,000. If we set average family size at five, then relocating a settler population of 7,500 will cost $450 million. The comparable cost of relocating the 400,000 Jewish settlers living within the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank would be $24 billion. (Comparable compensation to 4 million diaspora Palestinians would cost $240 billion.) Perhaps, then, Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank has indeed created an irreversible fact-on-the-ground. But in that case, it would seem also and just as irreversibly to be creating a Jewish-minority society.

There would seem to be little chance for the Bush Administration to reverse this state of affairs even if it wanted to. As last-resort guarantor of Israel's security, the United States cannot fail to be at least a silent partner at any negotiation. However, any Palestinian leader thought acceptable to Bush will be tainted at home, and any American-mediated agreement will be suspect as a sellout. With enlarged majorities in both houses of Congress, the President will dominate American political life-emphatically including American policy toward Israel-during the next four years far more than his Republican predecessors dating back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower ever did. As a result, if the Zionist dream of a Jewish-majority state can be rescued at all, it may have to be rescued without American help.

Israel's national anthem is "The Hope"--the hope, to quote from the anthem, "to be a free people in our own land." My heart aches at the thought that this hope may now have been lost, but it does not ache alone for the future generations of young Israelis condemned to the endless bloody subjugation of a hostile native population. It aches as well for the millions of Jews who have chosen not to "make aliyah" to Israel. For them, and above all for American Jews, Israel has been the definitive normalization of Jewish life in the West.

Israel has been a crowning blow to the most insidious kind of western anti-Semitism, the kind that disparaged a Jew living in London or Los Angeles as "not really English" or "not really American," the kind that Saul Bellow encountered when he was told as an aspiring Ph.D. candidate in English Literature that, for cultural reasons, a Jew could not be expected to excel in this field. The founding of the State of Israel served notice to the world that any Jew who felt that he could only be at home in a Jewish land now had a Jewish land to go to. As for the millions who had no desire to emigrate, Israel meant that they could be finally and securely at home where they were.

This is what Zionism has meant to me, an American Christian who treasures the Jews in his life, and this, I fear, is at grave risk as the passing of Yasser Arafat coincides with the triumph of George W. Bush.