Bush's Shift on Israel Was Swift
Country's Friends And Foes Credited
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2003; Page A01
The day after President Bush delivered a rare public criticism of Israel last week, he sat down to dinner at the White House with 100 Jewish leaders and did some damage control.
The dinner on June 11, officially marking a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, became an unofficial chance for Bush to reassure the attendees, many of them political donors, that he remained pro-Israel and that his complaints about an Israeli attack on a Palestinian militant were an aberration.
"He and others at the White House recognized that their reaction could be counterproductive," said Malcolm Hoenlein, one of the Jewish leaders who talked privately with Bush that night. "People were taken a little aback by the comments and, from what everyone could tell, the White House was well aware of it."
Indeed, by June 15, Bush was putting sole responsibility for Middle East violence on the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, leaving Israel blameless and asking the world to "deal harshly" with Hamas.
The shift in emphasis came about because of a variety of factors, according to diplomats, administration officials and others involved. The day after Bush's criticism of Israel, a Hamas-orchestrated bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 17 checked the president's first, visceral reaction to Israel's attack on a Hamas leader. A dossier presented by Israeli intelligence operatives to U.S. officials made a case that the target was legitimate -- while Israeli officials reached a tacit understanding with Bush aides about limiting future assassination attempts.
And, not least, Bush faced a wave of protest from Israel's defenders on Capitol Hill and K Street -- including many of those at the dinner on the 11th. According to Republican sources, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), who declared that "America must stand by Israel as it fights its own war on terror," had a private meeting with Bush aides and threatened to promote a congressional resolution in support of Israel's actions if Bush persisted in criticizing Israel.
The brief episode illustrates the pressure Bush will be under as he seeks to implement his "road map" to Middle East peace, kicked off earlier this month with a summit meeting in Jordan between the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The reaction to Bush's rebuke of Israel -- really just a mild expression that he was "troubled" by the attack -- brought Bush grief from his conservative supporters, and his dropping of the criticism served to confirm Arab fears that he would not pressure Israel.
"Any president that overuses our relationship with Israel to put their feet to the fire will not be able to do it when the key time comes," said Edward S. Walker, a former ambassador to Israel and now president of the Middle East Institute. "It's something that has to be preserved for the very important decisions, and last week was not one of them."
On Tuesday, June 10, Bush reacted angrily to a pair of Israeli attacks. "I am troubled by the recent Israeli helicopter gunship attacks," Bush said, echoing slightly stronger remarks by his aides. "I also don't believe the attacks help the Israeli security," he added, suggesting that Israel had not been exercising "responsible leadership."
In Jerusalem, Israeli officials felt the administration's anger in phone calls shortly after the first attack. Israeli officials started to assemble a dossier about Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Rantisi justifying the attack, but this was not made available before Bush spoke. "We could have handled it better," said one Israeli official, calling the response to U.S. inquiries "haphazard."
Eventually, Israel's Shin Bet domestic security agency turned over information to the CIA in a series of briefings. Among numerous Israeli officials who flew to Washington were Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who met with Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (who is expected to make a Middle East trip later this month).
Part of Bush's pique when he criticized Israel came from his assumption that Sharon had promised Israel would limit assassinations to militants who were "ticking time bombs" -- preparing to attack Israelis. Weisglass, according to an Israeli official, delivered the message to Rice and others that the target, Rantisi, was such a threat.
After numerous discussions, U.S. and Israeli officials agreed on what would be tolerated in the future. "There's a better understanding with the Israelis of what is and is not a ticking time bomb," a senior Bush aide said.
While those secret discussions were occurring, Bush faced a barrage of dissent from Israel's defenders, Republicans and Democrats, on Capitol Hill. Jewish groups normally friendly to the White House objected.
Then, on June 11, the suicide bombing in Jerusalem pushed aside any thought within the administration of criticizing Israel. Bush spoke again in public, this time asking the world to cut off funds to "organizations such as Hamas" and to "condemn the killings."
At the White House dinner, Jewish leaders were assured in private talks with Bush that he was not going to waver in his solidarity with Israel. Bush, in his public remarks, did not speak of the incident, talking instead about the importance of battling anti-Semitism and recalling his recent visit to a Nazi concentration camp.
"Everybody came away encouraged and pleased," said Nathan Diament, who had helped to craft a statement from orthodox Jews criticizing the White House. Diament said he was convinced the administration "clearly is not going to put pressure on Israel in the face of terrorist assaults."
Bush said as much in his next public remarks on the Middle East, on June 15. "The message is clear: Prime Minister Abbas wants peace; Prime Minister Sharon wants peace; America wants peace; the European Union wants peace," he said. "But there are clearly killers who don't. . . . [B]efore that state is established, it is clear that the free world, those who love freedom and peace, must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers. And that's just the way it is in the Middle East."
Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said the Jerusalem bombing "did change the immediate focus" of the administration's rhetoric. But Fleischer added that "the president will not be shy about reminding Israel of its responsibilities."
Still, Jewish leaders are not expecting more such reminders anytime soon. "It was a human reaction more than a change in policy," Republican Jewish Coalition Director Matthew Brooks said of the Bush criticism. "I account for it as a very, very small blip."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company