American-Israeli Relations in Bush’s Second Term

By January 25, 2005

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 2

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This article explores major factors that are likely to influence American-Israeli relations in Bush’s second term. The global war on terrorism will continue to dominate American foreign policy and the attitudes toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bush is likely to focus on the situation in Iraq and the determination of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. However, changes in the Palestinian and the Israeli governments have created opportunities for achieving two principal goals of the global war against terrorism: an end to one manifestation of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and democratization of an autocratic Arab regime. Bush is likely to work more forcefully to achieve these goals in the Arab-Israeli context.

On January 20, 2005 President George W. Bush officially began his second and final term in office. During his first term, the US developed a very close strategic relationship with Israel. Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon have also created a close personal relationship. The question is whether this pattern will continue in Bush’s second term. The following factors are likely to provide a framework for American policy toward Israel in the next four years: Bush’s place in history, his foreign policy strategies and priorities, his previous commitments to Israel, and his policies toward the Palestinian-Israeli violent confrontation. The analysis of these factors suggests substantial continuity with potential changes in priorities and means.

Context: Bush’’s Place in History

During their first term in office, American presidents tend to adopt policies that would help them win reelection to a second term. In their second and final term, they think primarily about their place in history and make decisions accordingly. In the second term, presidents also attempt to implement lessons learned from mistakes and weaknesses of the first term. They replace unsuccessful officials and modify and update failing strategies. Bush’s reshuffling of his cabinet reveals no intention to change his overall strategy. He chose to keep the controversial leadership of the Department of Defense, but replaced Secretary of State Collin Powel, who opposed the war in Iraq, with Condoleezza Rice, his loyal National Security adviser.

The place of Bush in history will be determined by the results of his war against global terrorism. More specifically, these results depend on the outcome of the war in Iraq and the efforts to block Iranian determination to obtain nuclear weapons. Occurring barely eight months into his first term, the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington formed Bush’s behavior and set his agenda and strategy.

Bush views terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as the greatest threats to the US and to peace and security in the world. He adopted the “war prevention doctrine” and went to war in Iraq primarily to prevent possible transfer of Iraqi WMD to terrorist organizations. He has a similar concern about Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and assistance to Islamic terror organizations. Successful defeat of Islamic and Arab terrorism depends to a large extent on the outcome of the war in Iraq. Victory there means: (1) the building of a stable, relatively democratic, and functioning government; (2) substantial reduction in terrorism and the establishment of effective local military and police forces to protect the government and to ensure domestic security; and (3) bringing the US and the coalition forces back home.

Iran also presents a tough dilemma. The fundamentalist Islamic state that today is the number one facilitator, supporter, and coordinator of terrorism in the Middle East, is determined to acquire nuclear capability. If all diplomatic and political efforts to stop Iran were to fail, Bush would confront a difficult dilemma: allow this extreme terrorist state to become nuclear or use force to destroy its nuclear infrastructure. Thus, Iraq and Iran stand at the top of Bush’s foreign policy agenda for his second term, and not the Palestinian–Israeli conflict.

Ending Palestinian Terrorism

Bush is likely to intensify efforts to end the four-year Palestinian war of terror against Israel, and to implement Israeli disengagement from Gaza and limited parts of the West Bank. He wants to achieve this outcome due to the following reasons: (1) it would represent a victory over terrorism, because the Palestinian terrorist organizations want to continue the violence and they oppose the disengagement plan and any negotiations with Israel; (2) it would help to focus all efforts on the rebuilding of a free Iraq and the war against global Islamic terrorism; (3) it could improve the US’ poor image in the Arab world; and (4) it could also help to reduce tension and disagreements between the US and the European Union.

Furthermore, changes in governments both in the Palestinian authority and in Israel represent, in the American eyes, an opportunity to end Palestinian terrorism and begin a conflict resolution process: Arafat’s death and the election of Mahmud Abbas create a new potential for a fundamental change in Palestinian policies, while the formation of a national unity government in Israel, with the joining of the Labor party, has improved the chances for more flexible Israeli policies. Abbas has spoken against Palestinian terrorism and violence and has criticized Arafat’s strategy, but speaking would not be enough. Bush will demand from Abbas to (1) amalgamate the Palestinian security services; (2) to impose law and order; and (3) to disarm and dismantle all the Palestinian terror organizations, particularly the Al-Aqsa Brigades, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. These are the central elements and conditions of the US-sponsored road map to peace. Ceasefire will be acceptable only as a temporary measure. Bush will apply enormous pressure on Abbas to end Palestinian terrorism, and if after 2-3 months this will not happen, Bush is likely to deal with Abbas in the same way he dealt with Arafat. He will boycott him and will fully support Israeli measures to curtail Palestinian terrorism. If, on the other hand, Abbas will make a sincere effort to stop Palestinian terrorism, democratize his government, and eliminate corruption, the US will use all available means, diplomatic, political and financial, to assist him in the rebuilding of the Palestinian Authority and in starting a useful conflict-resolution process with Israel. In this context, Bush will more forcefully demand from Israel (1) to dismantle illegal posts in the West Bank and to freeze settlements; (2) to use only measured force against Palestinian terrorism; and (3) to ease as much as possible controls and restrictions on the daily life of ordinary Palestinians.

Commitments to Israel

Bush’s basic attitude toward the Jewish state is substantially affected by his religious beliefs. He is a born-again Christian and theologically views Israel as the Promised Land. In addition, American Fundamental Christians, who strongly support Israel, helped Bush win the 2004 presidential elections, and he owes them a moral and political debt. Bush declared an unequivocal commitment to the security and well being of Israel as a Jewish state. Since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, the Congress and American public opinion have overwhelmingly supported Israel and blamed the Palestinians for the violence and the absence of a peace process.

Bush strongly supports Israel’s disengagement plan and views it as a significant step toward conflict resolution. He is concerned, however, about security and the political and economic situation in Gaza after the Israeli pullback. Chaos or a Hamas terrorist entity in Gaza will nullify all the potential contributions of disengagement to conflict resolution. Therefore, the Bush administration will make an effort to facilitate cooperation among Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt in implementing the disengagement plan. Bush has supported the building of the security fence. While he had reservations about the specific route of the fence in certain areas, he sharply criticized the advisory judgment of the International Court in The Hague on this matter for completely ignoring Palestinian terrorism which necessitated the fence construction. Bush is also likely to veto one-sided resolution proposals at the UN Security Council on the fence.

Bush supports the “two state solution” which mandates the establishment of a peaceful Palestinian state and believes that the two sides should negotiate a peace agreement that would facilitate this solution. While opposing an imposed solution, by formulating new positions, which have been approved by Congress, on controversial final status issues, Bush could have a significant impact on the future negotiations. He was the first American president to officially support a Palestinian state. On the other hand, for the first time, during a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held on April 14, 2004, Bush declared that any agreement should take into consideration realities that have developed on the ground in the last several decades. On the final borders he stated that due to existing major Israeli population centers in the West Bank, Israel will not be required to completely withdraw to the armistice lines of 1949. On the “right of return” he said that refugees would be permitted to return only to the Palestinian state, not to Israel.


Bush is likely to continue his unilateral approach to foreign policy, although he may seek greater cooperation with allies in NATO and countries such as Russia and China. In return for cooperation on Iraq and Iran he may allow for greater involvement of the European Union and the UN in Palestinian-Israeli affairs. During his first term, Bush refrained from personal involvement in Palestinian-Israeli mediation. For his second term, he may appoint a special personal emissary to advance negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Like his predecessor, Bill Clinton, he may be interested in promoting a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, but based on Clinton’s experience and his own he knows that after four years of Palestinian violence, this would not be a realistic goal to be achieved by the end of his term in office.

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Prof. Eytan Gilboa
Prof. Eytan Gilboa

Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and Director of the Center for International Communication, both at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.