Another Perspective

It’s Not the Stupid Economy

The politics of Bush-Sharon.

By 4.19.04

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"There goes the Palestinian vote." Uncle Pundit never fails to impale the obvious and listening to the President's endorsement of the Sharon plan for the West Bank and Gaza, he was right on as usual. That the President might abandon what had been the U.S. policy of 20 years regarding Israeli settlements on the West Bank and a vague "right of return" of the tens of thousands of Palestinians exiled from their homes in the making of the Jewish State was perhaps not as surprising as the timing for many observers.

But for the cynical among them, the timing was understandable. It evokes the image of the American Jewish Vote. And for Bush, the nightmare image of 1992. It was then that his father, George H. W. Bush had denied then- Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir more than the usual United States economic-military support, refusing Shamir's request for another $ 400 million to guarantee the advancing settlements in the West Bank. Soviet Jewish immigration was at its peak. Shamir was outspoken in his criticism of the American President. Bush declared he was a "lonely man" beset by "powerful political forces." In the 1992 election, according to the American Jewish Committee, American Jews dumped Bush, giving him just 10 percent of their vote, compared to 27 percent in his first race in 1988. The popular supposition has been enshrined in political folklore that "it was the economy, stupid," that did him in. Well, okay.

In 2000 the younger Bush did better, pulling near 20 percent of the Jewish vote. In a state like Florida, where the margin between Bush and Gore was something less than 600 ballots and where the presidency was ultimately decided -- well, you do the math.

None of this is to say that the American political landscape caused President Bush's conversion to Sharon's cause. It may have been something else, akin to a "calling" which he has described as the motivating factor for the invasion of Iraq. In their joint news session in the White House, Bush declared the Sharon plan "historic and courageous," Sharon "a bold leader." The Associated Press reports that Sharon had delayed his departure for Washington by three hours while he waited for the final draft of Mr. Bush's letter assuring him he was getting everything he wanted.

What is outlined in the Sharon plan is an evacuation of some 7,500 people from Gaza, but retention of border control and the waters off Gaza. The AP also quotes an anonymous source as saying Israel is negotiating with the World Bank for compensation for the houses to be left behind in 21 Gaza settlements.

More contentious, of course, is the West Bank, where some 500 settlers would be removed from four small settlements, but some 200,000 would remain. And these communities, says Sharon, must be strengthened for their security. The "security wall" now being built will be speeded up, says the Israeli statement, but will not be called "permanent."

A salient clue to Bush's perspicacity in adopting the Sharon deal: Democratic candidate John Kerry refused Sunday to take issue with any of it. Asked if he agreed with the Bush action, Kerry said "yes," not once but twice on "Meet the Press."

The Palestinian reaction has been predictable. Ahmed Quereia, the Palestinian prime minister, said of the Bush move, "We reject this, we will not accept it." Ditto and worse from Yasser Arafat: the end of "chances for peace."

The weekend assassination of the Hamas leader Rantisi in Gaza brought a guarded message of concern from the White House after several hours of conferring. After the killing of his predecessor, Yassin, Washington waited until Tony Blair deplored the slaying before following suit. A senior administration official said the administration had in no way approved the killing during the Bush-Sharon meetings a couple of days earlier.

There are signs domestically and abroad that Bush has undone much of the impression Jews held of his father. In an interview in Tel Aviv this past month, Yair Shamir, son of Yitzhak, said, "If you look at Bush's actions towards Israel, it stems from a religious belief. It seems that Bush feels that the Jews have a role designated by God, that the Holy Land belongs to them and it is his job to preserve it."

And this well before Ariel Sharon planned the Washington trip.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.