Not long ago, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice remarked that the withdrawal from Gaza must be only the beginning of Israel’s concessions to the Palestinians. Though the remark was couched in padding of praise for Israel, it raised some eyebrows, echoing as it did the language of Israel’s enemies even as settlers were struggling to disinter their loved ones from the cemetery at Neve Dekalim. The gracelessness of Rice’s timing, as much as the implicit warning in the message, caused alarm among those who fear that the Gaza withdrawal will be used as a precedent to cudgel Israel into far more dangerous concessions.
To these people I say: tirag’u, chevre. Take it easy. There are plenty of things to worry about at the moment – the inauspicious beginning of Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza does not augur well, to be sure – but Condi’s comment isn’t one of them. It’s worth examining, though, to give a glimpse into the method behind the current American relationship with Israel and the Palestinians.
There are two possible explanations for the remark. Either the Secretary was simply off message, or Bush and Rice are playing good cop/bad cop with Israel. If the first is the case, several subordinate questions arise. Was the remark deliberate? If so (and Rice strikes me as far too controlled to allow such a significant slip), should we infer a potentially hazardous split between Secretary of State and Commander in Chief? Was she, in other words, expressing the real attitude of the Department of State, putting Bush in a position roughly analogous to that of Truman before him with regard to Israel?
The widely popular perception of the American president as a bumbler with a bulldozer – a man too dim to formulate coherent arguments to support his positions, but who will cheerfully flatten anyone in his path who disagrees with his addled hunches – encourages one to see Rice’s remark as a fleeting revelation of the true face of a State Department hamstrung by the president’s delusional foreign policy. One might even speculate that Rice’s curiously automaton-like delivery bespeaks her reluctance to associate her own personality with the messages she is assigned to convey.
But the premise is wrong. Bush is many things, but a dolt is not one of them. (To the Tooting Station has an entertaining piece this week on the popular assumption of American presidential stupidity, by the way.) I believe Bush knows precisely what he is doing with regard to Israel, and Rice is with him up to the hilt. There is American strategy at work in the Gaza withdrawal as much as Israeli, obviously, and her comment reflects that strategy.
Condi’s words immediately put me in mind of James Baker III, Secretary of State under George Bush the Elder. (It was Baker who body-checked Shamir and the Palestinians into their historic photo-op in Madrid in 1991, setting in motion the eventual formal resuscitation of the PLO.) Baker’s tenure as advocate for Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement was notable for a curious feature: as far as he was concerned, we could all go to hell. There were many other factors at work, of course, but Baker’s scarcely-concealed contempt for both the Israelis and the Palestinians (particularly the Israelis) had its own motivating effect: neither party wanted to be responsible for their desertion by the Americans. His style contained not even a hint of the discomfiting whiff of supplication that would later characterize the efforts of Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton’s frequent-flying man on the job. Condi Rice’s words struck me as a more decorous version of the Baker approach: to remind the parties — in this case, Israel — that American patience is finite.
This position reassures the wider audience that the US is a broker for more than one side, and the granting of such reassurance is all to the good. The Americans are fully aware that words spoken to Israelis are destined for broader consumption, and it is in all our interests that they retain their credibility as mediators while we stumble toward some version of coexistence.
So I wouldn’t let Condi’s tactlessness worry you. As far as Israel is concerned, the good cop is still the guy in the Oval Office.