A media-hyped rift

Not every foreign leader gets invited to the Bush ranch in Crawford. In fact very few do. There have been no barbecue foie gras fests the past few years at the ranch. That Ariel Sharon, who has a ranch of pretty decent size himself in Israel, was invited to Crawford this week, should have signaled to the few open—minded journalists still out there, that the Bush—Sharon relationship, and with it the US—Israel relationship, remains strong. But to read the 'news' stories of the past two days, as noted by honestreporting.com, one might think that the two nations were now operating at serious cross purposes, and an air of conflict pervaded the leaders' talks.

The new stories, not surprisingly, focused on the issue of settlements. It is accepted wisdom among the legions of uninformed journalists writing about the subject that Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are illegal, were the principal cause of the intifada, and are the source of the lingering Palestinian bitterness directed at Israel.

At best, the above statements provide a partial truth, but in each case, they are in fact much more wrong than right. 

The Jewish settlements can be criticized on political grounds, but not legal ones. The Jewish settlement activity that has occurred since 1967 has been in lands that were captured in a defensive war. The settlers who moved into these areas did so voluntarily, not involuntarily, and it is involuntary population transfers which are prohibited in the Geneva Accords. In the Jerusalem area, some Jews purchased their property directly from Arabs.

The relevant section of the Geneva accords refers much more to China's behavior in Tibet (aggression, then population transfer), and Soviet Russia's mass movement of ethnic Russians into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia after World War II, though no self respecting journalist would dare bring these items up.  In each case, these population movements were designed to fundamentally change the ethnic composition of a nation. In China's case, they have succeeded in making Tibetans a minority in their own nation. 

With Israeli settlers representing between 6 and 14% of the population of the territories (depending on whether one includes the near 200,000 Jews in Jerusalem as part of the population of settlers in the territories, and on which Palestinian population estimate is the believable one—2.4 or 3.6 million, or something in between), it would be hard to argue that Israel has chosen to make the territories ethnically Jewish. The same journalists who point out the raw number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza (but not their share of the population) never mention that Arabs and other non—Jews are now well over a million in number, and comprise over 20% of the population of pre—1967 Israel.

While the national media are certainly no fans of President Bush, in a rogue—of—the—week contest between Bush and Sharon, they will more often choose to hammer Prime Minister Sharon. He is, in many ways, an easier target. After all, many journalists, along with the likes of Michael Moore, Justin Raimondo and Patrick Buchanan, believe that it was Sharon who pulled the strings leading the US into war with Iraq. So Bush (and presumably Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice) were the dupes and Sharon the puppet master in the run—up to war.

There is of course every reason to expect that newsmen who are wrong about one major subject, are also wrong about a related one. But opinions are a hard thing to break, or ignore, when covering major stories these days. Dennis Ross, in his exhaustive study of the Oslo peace process, has made clear that while settlement building did not make things easier for him from a diplomatic perspective, Israel did not violate any of the Oslo agreements by expanding some settlements during these years. 

Settlements were a final status issue in the Oslo process, and when the talks reached that stage at Camp David in the summer of 2000,  Ehud Barak offered to disengage not only from all of Gaza, but from all interior settlements in the West Bank, and from well over 90% of the West Bank land. Ross says the peace process collapsed, and the intifada began because Arafat had run out of concessions he could wring from the US and Israel, and was forced to choose to accept a deal that offered less than his ultimate goal, the elimination of the state of Israel.  His alternative was to instead start a new war.  Ross says the diplomats, both Israeli and American, were so anxious for success during the long drawn—out Oslo negotiations that they were willing to overlook the statements and behavior of the Palestinians which had doomed the enterprise from the start. Arafat had in fact been consistently signaling that he would never in the end accept a compromise which offered the Palestinians only a side—by—side second state,  having to accept Israel's existence.

So, too, with the current supposed contretemps between Israel and the US. As the honestreporting.com article makes quite clear, settlements were not the principal focus of the Bush—Sharon talks. The discussions between Israel and the US focused on 8 issues, according to the American statement on Monday, after the meeting:

1) Israeli security: 'The United States is committed to Israel's security... [under] secure and defensible borders.'

2) Economics: "We discussed ways to expand cooperation of our economies.'

3) Gaza Plan: 'Sharon is showing visionary leadership... I strongly support his courageous initiative to disengage from Gaza and part of the West Bank.'

4) Growth of Democracy: 'the important and encouraging changes taking place in the region, including a Palestinian election.'

5) U.S. support of a Palestinian state

6) Joint commitment to the road map

7) Need for 'an immediate, strong and sustained effort to combat terrorism in all its forms'

8) Settlements: 'Israel should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its road map obligations regarding settlements in the West Bank... [but] As I said last April, new realities on the ground make it unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.'

So settlements were only mentioned in point 8, and even on this one, President Bush chose to reiterate that the US did not believe it was realistic for Israel to return to the 1949 armistice lines were a final status deal to be realized this time around between Sharon, and the media's new champion, the 'moderate' Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. If the President has turned on Israel because of the issue of settlements, one might wonder why Palestinian Prime Minister Ahemd Qurei immediately attacked Bush for his statement on the issue.

The settlement controversy that the media has been blathering about this week concerns the empty land between Jerusalem and the settlement of Maaleh Adunim. This strip of land, quite a bit smaller than the Bush Prairie Chapel ranch in size, has been the subject of a new housing plan for many years. There is really nothing new on the short term horizon with regard to this proposed housing development, other than a continuation of a long drawn—out process that occurs before any new settlement housing is approved and constructed.

The Palestinians, eager to have the US and the international media overlook some fairly serious breakdowns in the territories the past few weeks, seem anxious to play up the new housing plan, and create tensions between the US and Israel. For the Palestinians to do this is predictable, and probably strategic. With Strella anti—aircraft rockets being smuggled into Gaza, wild firing by gunmen in various West Bank cities, a resumption of mortar attacks launched at Israel's Gaza settlements, and continued  terror attempts that have been thwarted by the Israeli security forces, there are many reasons for Abbas to want a diversion of attention from his weak leadership and his failure to meaningfully rein in the many thousands of Palestinian terrorists and fighters.

But the media reaction to the Maaleh Adunim issue, and their interest in magnifying any distance between the Israeli and American position on this one issue, is not quite so simple to explain.

Part of the explanation, as detailed above, is the misconception about the role settlements have played in the Israeli—Palestinian conflict. Pitifully few journalists are aware that, while successive American administrations have not been supportive of settlement construction, the official American position has always been that while they may be a political hurdle to a peace agreement, they are not illegal.  But the current media attempt to create a rift between Sharon and Bush also has a political dimension.

Leading national and international journalists, who lean heavily to the Democratic side politically, are well aware that Bush received more support from Jewish voters in 2004 than he did in 2000. The primary impetus for the shift that occurred was a perception that Bush has been a solid supporter of Israel, a view clearly borne out by the facts.  To create an air of conflict between Sharon and Bush, and to imply that Bush's support for Israel is weakening, therefore serves to provide ammunition for the Democrats to try to win back these pro—Israel Bush supporters. Politics has not ended with the November election. The next cycle has just begun.

The Jewish and Middle East press has been unrelenting in beating the drum of US—Israeli conflict. The Middle East Newsline ran the headline: 'US Israeli Relations at Lowest Point in Years,' perhaps forgetting how Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton dealt with Bibi Netanyahu when he was Prime Minister, and creating a false link between the actions of the current President Bush and those of James Baker as Secretary of State in the first Bush administration.

Barry Jacobs, in an equally hyperbolic article for the American Jewish Committee, asked ominously:  'Is Bush Still a Friend of Israel?' Presumably for Jacobs, a left—of—center analyst, if there is any distance at all between the Israeli and American position on any issue, then the end of the special relationship between the countries is in sight. Time to elect a Democrat, I guess.

I could make an alternative argument that the Maaleh Adunim controversy, to the extent it is even real, may even help Sharon in his very difficult struggle at home to successfully disengage from Gaza and the 4 northern West Bank settlements.  Pushing the housing plan in the 'face of resistance from Washington' might reassure some in the Likud camp that Sharon has not lost his bearings.

Israel is going though a tumultuous time. A majority of Israelis still appear to support the disengagement plan, though many supporters have reservations about what comes next from the Palestinians. A solid minority of the population (roughly 40%, perhaps) is firmly convinced the plan is a mistake. This disengagement , which President Bush has wholeheartedly endorsed (do some Israeli supporters really expect the President to be to Sharon's right on this issue?) will occupy Israel's government and Israelis for the months to come.

It is not as if Israel has no other concerns to worry about while trying to accomplish this disengagement. Iranian nukes for instance. But one thing Israel does not have to fear is that the American President has turned against Israel. He hasn't. And with Bush as President, he won't.

This President proved to be much more realistic about the opportunities for engagement with the Palestinians, when Arafat was alive, than the previous Clinton team. Whether Abbas represents anything new, or just an old terrorist in a new suit, is yet to be determined.  To answer this question we can follow where the international money goes, what the Palestinian media has to say, the effort made to disarm or disrupt terrorist groups, and the degree of cooperation with Israel's planned disengagement.

I think the Bush team holds no illusions about future Palestinian behavior or even Abbas's ability to remain alive or retain his hold on power. But they are giving Abbas every opportunity to succeed, or much more likely I think, given Palestinian history, fail.