George W. Bush's silence in the face of the destruction of the Palestine Authority (PA) -- and with it, the nine-year-old Oslo peace process --marks a sweeping change in U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The appeals of Arab allies to rein in Sharon have fallen on utterly deaf ears. The lack of response to date suggests that the Bush White House has now fully embraced the rightwing view that Israel is the U.S.' only strategic ally in the region. And that the interests of Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will have to take second place to the broader "war against terrorism."
This shift in perspective marks a huge and potentially decisive victory for a coalition of largely Jewish neo-conservatives and Christian Right Republicans both inside and outside the administration. They have argued with increasing vehemence in recent months that Washington's traditional deference -- which they label as "appeasement" -- to Arab rulers is ultimately counter-productive.
Who is the Pro-Israel Lobby?
Members of the anti-Arab lobby within the administration include: Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the second and third in command at the Pentagon respectively; Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser; Elliott Abrams, a senior member of the National Security Council Staff; John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for international security; and John Ashcroft, the evangelical Christian who heads the Department of Justice. It is also evident that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney generally share the views of their immediate deputies.
Outside the White House, William Bennett-- the influential former Reagan and Bush Sr. appointee who often spans the divide between neo-cons and the Christian Right -- is one of the prominent advocates of Israel. "America's fate and Israel's fate are one and the same," he wrote two weeks ago. Criticizing the State Department for calling on Sharon to exercise restraint, Bennett claimed that "Israel is being pressured so that we can assuage countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Yet it just so happens that those countries are responsible for the reappearance of the worst forms of anti-Jewish propaganda since (Nazi Propaganda Minister) Joseph Goebbels."
Bennett's article was one of dozens that have been churned out by the pro-Likud Right through publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and Washington Times, as well as the nationally syndicated columns of Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, and Michael Kelly.
Targeting the State Department
Many of these sources favor the even harder line of Sharon's main Likud rival, Benyimin Netanyahu. They have not hesitated to attack Sharon himself when he has shown any hesitation in destroying the Oslo peace process -- an initiative they have opposed from the outset.
But their principal target has been the State Department, and especially its Near East Bureau, which the Right believes has long been a hotbed of pro-Arab, if not anti-Semitic, sentiment. In their view, the Bureau's analysts (and Mideast specialists in the Central Intelligence Agency which tend to back up the Bureau) are simply wrong.
For example, the State Department's perspective -- which is shared by virtually all Mideast specialists in the United States, Europe, and even Israel --sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a central factor in the region's politics. Bureau analysts argue that any effort by Washington to build Arab support for an attack on Iraq will be made far more difficult by an escalation of the conflict or, worse, the complete collapse of the peace process. Their view of Israeli actions is best summed up by Nicholas Veliotes, retired head of the Bureau and ambassador to Egypt, who told CNN that the situation "in the West Bank and Gaza is an obscenity," which will badly damage U.S. interests in the region.
The right-wing lobby however disagrees.
"Washington needs to wean itself from viewing the Israeli-Palestinian collision as the center of the Middle East," according to Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA covert operator who is now at the staunchly neo-con thinktank American Enterprise Institute. It is a view repeatedly echoed on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, which noted just last week that "the path to a calmer Mideast now lies not rhough Jerusalem but through Baghdad."
A Radical Plan of Action
To the argument that Sharon's march into the Palestinian territories inspires "fury and hatred against the United States on the Arab "street," Gerecht responds, "Arabs only respect strength."
"In the Middle East, America's awe -- the key element that gives both us and our Israeli and Arab friends security -- can only be damaged by a Bush administration publicly fretting about Ariel Sharon's prosecution of his war against the Palestinian Authority," he writes. "Though the Near East Bureau at State hates the notion, the tougher Sharon becomes, the stronger our image will be in the Middle East."
Regional experts have also repeatedly argued that the conflict in Israel and Palestine makes it far more difficult for long-time U.S. allies and clients, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to maintain their control --and hence their "moderate" policies -- since their people demand strong action against Israel.
The Right subscribes to the radical view that the destabilization of such autocratic governments may be a good thing.
Permitting Arafat to set up a Palestinian Authority "is only the latest example of how dealing with Mideast dictators has become a Faustian bargain, not just for Israel but also for the U.S.," wrote the Journal's editorial staff Wednesday. "American presidents have gambled for 40 years that these rulers can buy stability, and that the alternative is far worse; in the long run they come back to haunt us."
The answer, according to this view, is to invade Iraq and establish a democratic government that can serve as a model for the region. "Liberating Iraq from Saddam and sponsoring democracy would not only rid the region of a major military threat. It would also send a message to the Arab world that self-determination as part of the modern world is possible," according to the Journal, which dismisses Arafat as a petty despot rather than leader elected by the population of the Palestinian Authority.
This view received strong support from Joshua Muravchik in The Standard few months ago. Reviewing a survey by another neo-con group, Freedom House, he noted that people in the Arab world enjoy the least freedom.
"Far from pointing toward a relaxation of military efforts (in the war against terror)," Muravchik wrote, "(the survey) suggests that the more terror-loving tyrannies the United States can topple the better."
And what if the Saudi royal family were replaced by a democratic government that was nonetheless hostile to the United States? The Wall Street Journal would be ecstatic: "It would force a decision on whether to take over the Saudi oilfields, which would put an end to OPEC."