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The Difference Between Bush and Kerry on Israel
by Mitchell Plitnick
October 31, 2004

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While neither a Bush nor Kerry administration would challenge the "special relationship" between the US and Israel, the outcome of this election will likely make a real difference in the amount of death and destruction visited on both sides, but especially on Palestinians.

There are, to be sure, significant differences between presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush. But when it comes to the Middle East, the differences are difficult to spot. In contrast to the 2000 election, however, when the direction each candidate might take if elected was not entirely clear, we can be pretty certain what the policies of Kerry and Bush will look like.

What Bush might do in another four years wouldn't be different in substance from his terrible first term, but it would be magnified, with potentially disastrous results. As for Kerry, his inclination toward a return to negotiations and a reduction of violence wouldn't bring peace or justice much closer, but would likely mean some lessening of the killing and destruction.

A Kerry Presidency

As John Kerry began his campaign, he was in a paradoxical position. Most of America's Jewish voters were quite anti-Bush, and could be counted on to vote for a Democrat. But the major Jewish organizations clearly saw that Bush's stand on Israel was much more to their liking than Kerry's. While most American Jews make presidential choices based on priorities other than Israel, these large Jewish organizations emphasize Israel above all, and they, rather than Jewish voters, are the players candidates try to win over (note: recent polls reinforce this. Most American Jews believe that Bush is more favorable to Israel, yet 75% are still projected as voting for Kerry). Because of this pressure, Kerry has moved away from earlier more reasonable positions, such as his criticism of Israel's wall in the West Bank.

But campaign promises and actual policies are not the same. They often don't even resemble each other much. Statements made by both Kerry and his running mate John Edwards have raised concerns among observers and have convinced many that the policies of a Kerry administration will be little different from a second Bush regime. Of course, no administration will challenge the "special relationship" between the US and Israel, and the flow of aid and political support for Israel will remain intact no matter who wins. This will be true until American citizens come out in sufficient organized numbers demanding a change. But within that framework, there are differences which, while perhaps not mattering much in terms of attaining a just peace, do make a big difference in the level of death and destruction for both sides, but especially for Palestinians.

Rather than listen to the campaign propaganda, one might do better to look at the people Kerry has assembled around him. These include Sandy Berger, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, all veterans of the Clinton years. These are, of course, some of the key figures responsible for bringing about the current state of affairs. Ross in particular played a central role in propagating the myth of the "Generous Offer." That is the notion that at Camp David in 2000, the Palestinians were offered virtually everything they wanted, but refused this, opting instead for a violent assault on Israeli citizens. This is far from a fair description of the events at Camp David (see JVP's Conflict FAQ for more on this), and the charade has caused a great deal of damage. Israeli and American belief in this myth makes peace much harder to achieve, and it will surely be reinforced in a Kerry presidency with Ross involved.

Still, all of these men, while certainly not disposed toward any kind of even-handedness, did generally favor keeping some kind of control over what they might see as 'the occasional excesses' of the Israeli government. And they all strongly supported continued engagement with both the Palestinians and Syria. Their inclinations are more toward the Labor side of Israeli politics. That view favors a negotiated settlement and a Palestinian state, albeit a settlement where Israel retains control over most or all of Jerusalem, some kind of ongoing Israeli military presence in the West Bank and absolutely no return of any Palestinian refugees. It is far from the even-handed approach that is needed; that approach would dictate that Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and that both sides negotiate in good faith over the outstanding issues.

There is no hope of that in a Kerry administration. Indeed, until we who oppose the occupation of Palestinian territories marshal the serious political force we are capable of assembling, there will never be an administration that will take that approach. But Kerry does favor working diplomatically, and is quite likely to exercise some restraint over Israeli actions in the Territories, just as Clinton did. This does not mean things will be the same. The short-sightedness of the Bush administration, its near-complete refusal to act to slow Ariel Sharon's aggressiveness and the intense violence of the past four years have changed the playing field greatly since Clinton left office. But the inclination of a Kerry policy will be toward a return to negotiations and a reduction of violence. It won't bring peace or justice much closer, but it is likely to mean some lessening of the killing and destruction.

A Second Bush Term

Many assume that a second Bush administration will be much like the first. But some strong differences are likely to emerge.

A second Bush term might be called "Bush Unleashed." It would mean four years of "we ain't seen nuthin' yet." In his first four years in office, Bush has fundamentally altered the diplomatic playing field in Israel/Palestine. He has given Israel a guarantee that they would never have to return to the borders as they existed before the 1967 war and that there would be no return of any Palestinian refugees into Israel. Crucially, this means that the US has decided this in Israel's favor without any discussion with the Palestinians. While it has long been understood by many that this was America's outlook, the public proclamation of these points reverses decades of American policy which stated that such sensitive issues need to be dealt with in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush has endorsed Sharon's unilateralism, something America has generally opposed. He has in fact done more to change the basics of Middle East diplomacy than anyone since Henry Kissinger's policy of "stalemate", which permanently removed the United States from the international consensus formed around UN Resolution 242, the basis of 'land for peace' reached in the wake of the 1967 war.

The major likely change would be the appointment of a new Secretary of State. Many believe that Colin Powell will not be back in that office if Bush is re-elected. Powell has often looked quite uncomfortable while spouting the party line, a line he often knew to be absurd or even dangerous. And it has been clear for some time that Powell and the State Department have been resigned to a secondary role in policy formation behind Donald Rumsfeld and the Defense Department..

Powell, for all of his own hawkishness, has been a voice of comparative reason amid a cacophony of neoconservative voices. Should the new Secretary of State be someone who is more closely aligned with the Rumsfeld/Cheney camp, there would be even greater aggression, not just in Israel/Palestine but everywhere around the world. The UN would not even be an afterthought anymore. Nor would any allies but for the few closest ones that stay in line, as England and Israel have. There can be little doubt that the close relationship with Sharon would be even closer in a second term.

There are also some indications that the Pentagon is growing increasingly uneasy with the neocon program. Sources have said the FBI investigation into Douglas Feith's office and into AIPAC was initiated at the behest of the Pentagon. Feith has even hinted he may not be back for the second term if there is one. But at this point, Rumsfeld and Cheney are sufficiently schooled in the neocon program, and are sure to continue to rely on the neocon clique for guidance, whether they are in office or not. In any case, it seems overwhelmingly likely that any departing neocons will be replaced by others from the same school, though perhaps less well-known ones.

In short, four more years of Bush working hand in hand with Ariel Sharon could elevate this conflict to levels of violence never thought imaginable.

Mitchell Plitnick is Director of Policy and Education for Jewish Voice for Peace: ( He can be reached at