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When It Comes to U.S.-Israel Relations, Interference Works Both Ways

January 24, 2008 By:
Douglas M. Bloomfield
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The Israeli right is worried that President Bush might be serious about brokering peace with the Palestinians, and so it's telling him to stop meddling in their country's domestic politics.

Politely, of course.

We love you, George -- and we love those billions in military aid and high-tech weapons you send us -- but don't tell us what to do.

That might be understandable, were it not so hypocritical.

Politicians from both countries and both parties have been meddling in each other's domestic politics for decades. And there's no sign it is going to let up.

My former colleague at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and ex-Israeli diplomat during the Benjamin Netanyahu government, Lenny Ben-David, wrote on his blog last week, "Mr. Bush, thanks for your support but stay out of Israel's domestic politics."

He was probably thinking of Bush's urging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition partners to stay aboard what Ben-David called "Olmert's leaky ship," lest the government sink. But he needn't worry about peace breaking out.

Bush got a very polite response from Israelis and Palestinians when he spoke of completing a permanent-status agreement by the time he leaves office in a year.

No one laughed in his face.

The Media Line, an Internet news file, reported Bush's call to support Olmert produced "resentment for meddling into Israel's domestic politics."

But it depends on one's perspective.

In 2005, right-wing Knesset members worked with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in an unsuccessful effort to block the Gaza withdrawal.

"Whoever was out of power in Israel would come over here to drum up support when they felt they couldn't do anything at home," said Samuel Lewis, the former American ambassador to Israel.

In the 1980s, it was the Labor Party.

At the time, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres worked secretly to initiate peace negotiations with Jordan in the face of opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He reached an understanding with King Hussein at a meeting in London and rushed to Washington to enlist the Reagan administration's help in forcing Shamir to accept it. The plot collapsed when it was leaked to Shamir's office by an AIPAC official.

In the next decade, it was Likud's turn. Three former Shamir aides -- Yoram Ettinger, Yigal Carmon and Yossi Ben-Aharon -- and followers of Netanyahu, the opposition leader then as now, were dispatched to Washington to thwart the peace policies of the Clinton and Rabin-Peres governments. Rabin accused them of waging a "campaign of disinformation."

Netanyahu himself worked closely with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to undermine Clinton and Rabin.

In the 1990s, the word out of Washington was that premiers Shamir (in 1992) and Netanyahu (in 1999) had mismanaged the American account and couldn't work with the current administration (Bush I and Clinton, respectively); those leaks, another kind of interference, contributed to their defeat by Labor.

President Bush tried to shore up Olmert last week by urging right-wing coalition partners opposed to the peace process not to topple his government; administration officials here fear a Netanyahu victory would end the peace process they consider critical to Bush's legacy.

It works both ways.

To the consternation of most American Jews, former Ambassador to Washington Yitzhak Rabin tacitly endorsed Richard Nixon in 1972, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was effusive in his praise of George W. Bush during the 2004 election campaign -- a sore point with many American Jews, who voted overwhelmingly against the president

Sometimes, American Jewish lobbyists went to Jerusalem to lobby the Knesset instead of the Congress. That's what happened in the 1980s when top officials of AIPAC flew to Israel to try to block the "Who is a Jew" legislation, which they took personally since many of them and their children had intermarried.

"Israel is the only country where we're players in each other's politics -- and we don't know how to stop it," said Lewis. "There are too many tentacles of interconnections."

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.

 

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