by Peter Hartcher
American TV viewers have been seeing quite a bit of Daniel Pipes and Hussein Ibish lately. Theirs are two of the leading voices in the high- stakes contest to influence the superpower’s policy in the Middle East. And they are voices which are now being raised at each other, and on national television.
No matter how often they appear on the same talk-show panel, these men will never be on the same platform. Daniel Pipes is an important intellectual force in arguing Israel’s case in the US. And though he is soft-spoken and woolly bearded, the director of the Middle East Forum gets very worked up when he’s around Ibish. He calls him “anti-American, anti-Semitic, inaccurate and immoral.”
Ibish, younger, brasher, and more showmanlike, is an emerging star in the Palestinian cause in Washington’s corridors of power and in the media, under the title of communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
He cheerfully pleads guilty to the charge of immorality if that refers to his university days of “smoking cigars, drinking a beer or two and meeting girls”.
But he retorts that Pipes is a “professional Arab-basher” and “a veritable geyser of falsehoods”.
Ibish recently distinguished himself on the MSNBC network by calling Pipes a liar. This provoked the scholarly Pipes into shouting at him to shut up. But these unyielding partisans in one of Earth’s oldest disputes do agree on one thing. Perhaps it is one of only two points of concurrence.
It is this: that the Bush Administration’s policy on the Middle East is so deeply schizophrenic that it is not yet a single policy, but two competing ideas which is why the two sides are fighting so hard to shape US policy before it hardens, before the schizophrenia is resolved.
“US policy is a picture of inconsistency,” Pipes told The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday.
“You had the US voting in the United Nations last Saturday in favour of a resolution that Israel should pull out of the Palestinian territories, and then you had the President saying almost the exact opposite,” when he said that he respected Israel’s right to protect itself by taking reprisals against Palestinian acts of terrorism.
“And the reason for this inconsistency is that the US has two inconsistent priorities one, it wants to support Israel, and two, it wants Arab support for action against Iraq.”
But, at core, “it’s less about competing interests than about competing personalities in the administration”, says Pipes.
On the one hand there is George Bush himself and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who both favour a harder line in support of Israel. They are supported by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon. This is a formidable group.
And on the other there is the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who wants a more even-handed approach and a more conciliatory tone with the Palestinians and the Arab governments which support them. Hussein Ibish agrees absolutely with Pipes’s analysis of the division in the administration and the inconsistency it produces. But he takes it a step further in accounting for it:
“This represents a very deep split between two sets of interests, the diplomatic register and the political register,” Ibish told the AFR. “The State Department asserts the national interest in dealing with the region.
“The White House and the Pentagon represent the political interest. On Israel’s side there are three key interests the Israel lobby, which is very powerful, plus the Christian Right, a key constituency for Bush, plus the defence contractors.”
Against that, “there is nothing on the other side” in support of the Palestinian interest. One numerical indicator of the balance of these forces in the American political system is the structure of support in the US Congress.
The Israeli lobby can count on garnering in 24 hours at least 200 signatures on any letter out of a pool of 435 members of the House of Representatives; the Palestinians can rely on about a dozen.
So who will prevail in this great contest?
Interestingly, this is the second point of agreement between Daniel Pipes and Hussein Ibish. They agree that, at least in the medium term, the pro-Israel position will triumph.
“The President’s view will prevail, and I think his own instincts are clearly in favour of supporting Israel,” Pipes says.
The Wall Street Journal concurs: “Unlike his father’s vast diplomatic and government experience, the current president’s philosophy toward Israel is based largely on personal experience, and his relationships and grudges now are helping to shape his administration’s policies.”
A pivotal moment was Bush’s first trip to the Middle East, in 1998. He was warmly received by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Ariel Sharon, now the country’s Prime Minister. Sharon squired Bush on a helicopter tour of Israel, and the two men hit if off immediately.
However, Bush’s schedulers were unable to get a meeting with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, or his lieutenants.
This pattern of contact persists to this day. Bush has frequent phone contact and personal meetings with Sharon, but pointedly refuses to meet Arafat. Bush has never met the Palestinian leader, and rejected a proposal for a casual handshake at the UN last year.
Ibish agrees that ultimately, US foreign policy is made by the president, and that Bush will eventually settle policy in firm favour of Israel. But he argues that, in the short run, there is a good prospect of inducing a more balanced approach to US policy.
“These are not normal circumstances the US wants to attack Iraq. On its own, a US policy of alienating the Palestinans will not topple Arab governments that support the US.
“But if the US goes ahead with an attack on Iraq at the same time, we will see real pressure on the regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and they risk absolute disaster. This would be counter-productive for Israel because it would derail any attempt to normalise Israel’s status.”
So Ibish believes that his cause is not yet lost; that the President can be restrained from swinging all-out US support behind Israel, at least for a while.
Ultimately, though, Ibish and Pipes agree that the US will come down solidly on Israel’s side.
by Peter Hartcher