Was Clinton Jews best friend, or was he just Mr. Evenhanded

It may be a little early to start analyzing the policies of the next president. In fact, it still isn't entirely clear who the next president will be, though the odds are his name will be George W. Bush.

But whether you view a putative Bush presidency with dread or glee, it isn't too soon to begin the process of weighing the legacy of the Clinton administration on the Middle East.

President Clinton will be with us only another few weeks as his lame-duck presidency quacks its way into oblivion. The question is, how long will the impact of his eight years in power be felt in Israel?

To understand the relationship between the president and the Jewish nation, we have to remember that in this case, as with all others involving Clinton, image seemed to count far more than substance.

Just as he spent the last eight years seducing the American people, Clinton was also easily the American president most adored by the Israeli people. They doted on the attention he showered on them, loved his use of a few key Hebrew phrases and fell hard for his "feel your pain" routine.

American Jews have largely felt the same way, especially in contrast to the policies of Clinton's predecessor, George Bush the elder, who was widely and rightly viewed as unfriendly to Israel.

The question is: How different really was Clinton from Bush?

Under both presidents, the defense bureaucracies of Israel and the United States cooperated and the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance advanced (achievements that Dick Cheney deserves as much credit for as William Cohen does). But despite the similarities, their reputations among friends of Israel are considered opposites. Given his ability to say just what we needed to hear at any given moment, Clinton convinced most Jews — American and Israeli alike — that he had Israel's best interests at heart, even when his policies were pushing the Jewish state in a dangerous direction.

Clinton will be remembered for his tearful farewell to Yitzhak Rabin — "Shalom Chaver" — while Bush will always be thought of as the man who vowed to "stand up" against Israel's lobbyists in Washington to keep the Jewish state from getting loan guarantees to resettle immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

But Clinton retained the same team of State Department specialists to carry out his supposedly more favorable policies as Bush used for his unfriendly ones. Dennis Ross and his merry band of State Department court Jews performed much the same tasks in much the same way for Clinton as they had for Bush.

While neither Clinton's first Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, nor his second, Madeleine Albright, ever took the open "bleep the Jews" attitude that made the unctuous James Baker famous, the truth is, their policies were not dissimilar. Certainly, Albright's willingness to lecture Israel on its interests and how best to protect its security was no less arrogant than anything Baker said.

Both the Bush and the Clinton administrations consistently regarded advancing the peace process as synonymous with that of helping Israel. That meant their affection was always conditional: As long as Israel was willing to make concessions to the Palestinians and thus advance the process, Israel was in Washington's good graces. As soon as it stopped giving, the love stopped.

Each also played favorites among Israel's democratically elected governments, intervening in the Jewish state's politics with all of the subtlety that America once used with "banana republics" in South America. Bush did his best to first undermine and then dispose of the government of Yitzhak Shamir in favor of one led by Rabin. Clinton all but called out the U.S. Marines in a vain effort to keep Shimon Peres in power in 1996, and then had his ambassador in Tel Aviv campaign harder for the defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999 than the president did for Al Gore the following year.

But the biggest difference between the two had more to do with the Palestinians than the Israelis. Because Clinton hungered for the glory that agreements and the photo opportunities provided — not to mention his glittering goal of a Nobel Peace Prize — he also wanted to be the special friend of the Palestinian Arabs. No American president did as much for the Palestinians as Clinton. Clinton's statements and symbolic acts drew a moral equivalence between Israel and the putative Palestinian state. His heartfelt January 1999 speech in Gaza speaking of the sorrow of the children of slain Israeli soldiers and those of the children of Palestinian terrorists deeply moved many, even as it left others of us aghast.

Where Clinton's policies are to be judged most at fault is the role he played in raising the Palestinians expectations. By seeking to play the "honest broker" and de-emphasizing America's special alliance with Israel, he did more to convince the Arabs that ultimate victory over Israel would be theirs beyond anything else. By making the Palestinians believe that Israel would be brought to accept their demands, Clinton set in motion the drama that would lead to them rejecting Barak's unprecedented concessions. The July 2000 Camp David fiasco, for which all sides were unprepared, was a monument to Clinton's haste and foolish ambition.

In the end, Clinton wound up with the worst of both worlds. Trying to distance this country from Israel by merely abstaining from a vicious anti-Israel resolution in the United Nations (a veto would have been a clear declaration of the United State's support of the Jewish state), he undermined the special relationship between the two countries. And it left Israel isolated while it was under attack.

But to the Arabs, he still looked like an ally of Israel because he could not deliver Jerusalem for them. We should also consider the very recent spectacle of Albright denouncing Israel's limited measures of self-defense after the Palestinians blew up an Israeli school bus, reminding the world that "Israelis were not the only victims." It should linger in our memories the same way the elder Bush's stupid speech trashing pro-Israel activists still sticks in our throats. The idea that Clinton was the most pro-Israel American president has far more myth and public relations hype than truth.

But before anyone starts worrying about the new Bush administration, friends of Israel should remember something else. No Israeli government has to bend to American dictates. There is a huge reserve of good will and support for Israel among the general public and Congress that will sustain it in the face of American presidential pressure, no matter who applies it.

After eight years of Clinton's romance, maybe what the Middle East needs now is a little indifference as the two sides settle down to living with the reality of a stalemate that cannot be broken anytime soon. That means the fact that George W. Bush has no pretensions to winning a Nobel Peace Prize may actually be a good thing. His attitude may not make Israelis or American Jews swoon with affection the way Clinton's seduction did, but let's hope it means fewer Israeli casualties.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer at National Review.