US President George W. Bush found himself immersed last week in a political crisis of his own making. For the first time in his presidency, Americans told pollsters that they trust the Democrats more than the president on issues of national security.
There is an Israel angle to Bush's misfortunes. In fact, the nature of the mess in which Bush recently inserted himself explains a great deal about the nature of Israel's relationship with America. It also shows how that relationship is harmed by the expedient interests of both the Bush administration and the Israeli government.
Last month, the administration announced it had approved a deal to place the management of 21 US ports in the hands of the United Arab Emirates-owned firm Dubai Ports World or DPW. This caused an uproar on Capitol Hill. Citing Dubai's documented connections to al-Qaida, legislators from both parties demanded the deal's cancellation.
Rather than bowing to pressure, Bush surprised his supporters by insisting the deal go through. Accusing its detractors of anti-Arab bigotry, Bush – who has never used his presidential veto – threatened to veto any bill that cancels the DPW deal. Bush's response precipitated several investigative reports in the US media that exposed wide ranging business connections between high level administration officials – including Treasury Secretary John Snow – and DPW.
The Jerusalem Post's report last week which exposed DPW's adherence to the Arab boycott of Israel caused the administration additional headaches. It is against US law to adhere to the boycott. In a stuttered response, administration spokesmen intimated vaguely that Dubai is being pressured to end its participation in the boycott.
According to polling data, by the end of last month, only 17 percent of Americans supported the deal with Dubai while 63% opposed it. Given its enormous opposition, Bush's refusal to set the deal aside led several Republican lawmakers to openly criticize him. Indeed, Republican legislators worked steadily to kill the deal as quickly as possible to end their embarrassment.
At the same time, throughout the crisis the deal's many opponents suffered only one major setback. It came from an unexpected source: Israel.
Last week, Idan Ofer, the CEO of Israel's shipping line Zim, wrote a letter to New York Senator Hillary Clinton in which he praised DPW and expressed his support for the deal. In Ofer's words, "During our long association with Dubai Ports World we have not experienced a security issue in these ports or in any of the terminals operated by them." He added, "We are proud to be associated with Dubai Ports World and look forward to continue working with it in the future."
Given Dubai's adherence to the Arab boycott and the fact that in his letter Ofer acknowledged that Zim's ships are forced to fly under foreign flags in order to dock in Dubai's ports, opponents of the deal scratched their heads in puzzlement and exasperation at Ofer's move.
Aside from taking steps to cancel the deal, Congress placed the Treasury Department's secretive Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which approved the deal, under a magnifying glass.
In Congressional testimony last week, Frank Gaffney, the President of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. noted that CFIUS almost never conducts full-scale investigations of deals concerning foreign companies operating in the US. Of the 1,600 deals that have come before CFIUS since it was established in the 1980s, only 26 have come under serious review.
CFIUS decided to conduct its 26th full-blown investigation just days after it approved the deal with DPW. Disturbingly, the newest investigation relates to the Israeli computer systems protection company Check Point's intention to purchase its smaller American rival Sourcefire. As the AP report of the investigation noted, "The contrast between the administration's handling of the $6.8 billion Dubai ports deal and the Israeli company's $225 million technology purchase offers an uncommon glimpse into the US government's choices to permit some deals but raise deep security concerns over others."
The deal reportedly raised the hackles of Pentagon and FBI officials. They allege that since Sourcefire's software programs are used to protect US military and intelligence computer systems from infiltration, its acquisition by Check Point will seriously damage US national security.
The storm of protest against the DPW deal tells us something about the American public's view of the Arabs. By the same token, the FBI and Pentagon's objection to the Check Point deal and their support for the DPW deal tell us something about the state of the administration's relations with the Israeli government.
CFIUS's counterintuitive treatment of the DPW and Check Point deals tells us two things about how the administration makes its decisions. First, money talks. Not only is Dubai the banking capital of the Persian Gulf, flush with oil revenues, it has become an active investor in the US. In response to the uproar over the DPW deal, the UAE announced that if the deal is cancelled, it will reconsider its stance regarding its ongoing free trade negotiations with the US. UAE officials also intimated in media interviews that they may limit its investments in the US if the deal does not go through. Their decision to cancel the deal themselves to avoid a Congressional investigation into their ties to terrorists in no way mitigates their threat to take their money out of America.
So rather than addressing Congress's concerns about Dubai's links to Islamist terror, pledging not to take any steps that might endanger US national security, apologizing for its past support for Osama bin Laden or ending its participation in the boycott of Israel, Dubai reacted to scrutiny of the deal by threatening the US with sanctions. And the administration responded to those threats by endangering its political support base and marring its credibility as a champion of national security in order to defend Dubai.
The administration's support for Dubai shows that it respects power and those who wield it. Similarly, by treating Check Point as if it were an enemy state, the administration demonstrates its contempt for weakness.
OVER THE past several years, Israel has demonstrated unprecedented weakness in its dealings with Washington. This weakness has caused a situation where Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acclaimed the Bush administration as the best friend Israel has ever had, while the administration ended Israeli participation in multiple joint military research and development projects.
The administration also demanded Israel accept encroachments on its sovereignty by forcing Israel to sign a commitment to give the US veto power over a significant share of its military exports. The economic consequence of this unprecedented step is that Israel must now receive the approval of its chief business competitor in the international arms market before concluding any major deal.
So in stark contrast to declarations by Israeli and American policymakers alike, Israel's relationship with the administration in recent years has not been particularly positive. Rather, its prominent features have been American intimidation and Israeli kowtowing. Sharon's desperate, irrational and personal need to feel accepted by Washington rendered him effectively incapable of representing Israel's interests to the administration. What Sharon craved was not substantive cooperation in war, but declarations of support in him personally by the Bush and his senior advisers.
In Sharon's absence, his Kadima party maintains the same dependence on expressions of support from the administration even when such declarations come at the price of undermining Israel's basic strategic interests. That is, under Sharon and Kadima, it has become
possible to make a distinction between administration support for the Israeli government and administration support for Israel. Given this, it isn't difficult to surmise the background to Ofer's odd statement of support for the DPW deal. From all this we learn that like the Kadima government, the administration is fully capable of ignoring the US's national security interests when doing so advances its political interests.
In sharp contrast to the administration's counterintuitive and opportunistic preference for Arab despotisms over Israel, the American public follows its intuition and is generally unsupportive of the Arabs, whom Americans regard as their foes, and consistently supportive of Israel, which they regard as their ally in the war against the global jihad.
In the public's outcry against the DPW deal we saw the vast potential for changing the administration's attitude towards Israel. Just as the American public decries the notion of turning America's ports over to Arab control, so too, the American public would back an Israeli refusal to transfer control over its national security to Hamas. And just as the public's rejection of the port deal forced the UAE to cancel it, so too, were Israel to decide to assert its rights as a sovereign nation in Washington by defining victory against the Palestinian terror war as its strategic aim, it would be able to tap into deep reservoirs of support in the US that would force the administration to back its moves.
Sadly, in what can only be judged as pathological opportunism, rather than encouraging its American supporters, Israel's government underminded them by publicly siding with the administration in the Dubai port dispute. The government's behavior in this matter reflected Kadima's general policy. Kadima, like its founder Ariel Sharon, operates under the guiding assumption that Israel is weak and cannot defend itself without international support generally and American support specifically.
Like Israel's other leftist parties, Kadima assumes that the only way to receive the administration's support is by weakening Israel still further. This is why Sharon decided to withdraw from Gaza and northern Samaria and it is why Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today claims that Israel must vacate most of Judea and Samaria, with the land to be transferred to Hamas, and continue enabling the transfer of "humanitarian aid" to the Hamas-led PA. That is, Kadima believes that its international support is dependent on weakening Israel and strengthening Israel's enemies. By all counts, it is right to believe this.
Today the Bush administration is aggressively backing Kadima in the elections. Last month, administration officials reportedly pressured PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to postpone the formation of the Hamas government until after the Israeli elections because they believe that doing so will help Kadima against the Likud.
In backing Kadima, a party committed to transferring lands and money to the Hamas-led PA, the US has effectively made strengthening the Iranian-backed Hamas its central aim in the region. From this it becomes apparent that Kadima's party interests are diametrically opposed to Israel's national interests.
What the adamant public opposition to the Dubai deal shows is that regardless of how the administration may presently be treating Israel, if Israel elects a different government this month, the administration will not be able to easily oppose it if it decides to actually advance Israel's national interests for a change. Indeed, as is the case with the DPW deal, if a new Israeli government projects a powerful image in Washington, accompanied by a dedication to the goal of ending the Palestinian war in victory, not surrender, the American people will intuitively support it and force the administration to support it as well.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.