Thursday, May 8, 2008

Sixty years ago this month, the state of Israel was founded, a nation born with a knife at its throat. Within hours of the United Nations General Assembly’s decision to partition British-ruled Palestine into two independent states — one majority Jewish, the other Arab — Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, whereupon seven Arab armies invaded in an unsuccessful attempt to wipe it off the map. It’s unpleasant to talk about, but one parallel between May 1948 and May 2008 needs a more open public discussion as President Bush prepares to visit Israel next week to commemorate Israel’s birthday: When it comes to legitimate Israeli security concerns, the State Department still seems clueless 60 years later.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in a very weak position domestically; Israel is rife with rumors of his impending political demise as a result of myriad corruption investigations. Yet rather than let the Israeli electorate deal with a potential government crisis, it appears that Mr. Bush and Miss Rice have decided to ramp up the pressure on Israel to make life-and-death concessions to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a man whose serial incompetence got him run out of Gaza by Hamas, and whose own security record is shaky at best. Miss Rice and other U.S. diplomats pronounce themselves dissatisfied over the pace at which Israel has been taking down anti-terror security roadblocks in the West Bank, and the secretary is dispatching observers to various West Bank locations in order to satisfy herself that Israel is jettisoning them quickly enough.

While reducing limitations on Palestinian freedom of movement is a commendable goal, it needs to be balanced against the real danger that doing this could make it easier for terrorists to come and go without detection. These checkpoints are part of a layered system of security that has enabled Israel to dramatically reduce the number of suicide attacks directed at its civilian population, Arab and Jewish, in places like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa during the past five years. But from conversations we’ve had with State Department officials, the real-world security implications seem to be overlooked in the Bush administration’s bid to obtain a “peacemaking” legacy for itself.

Sixty years ago this month, Secretary of State George Marshall was mucking up Middle East policy in his own way. On May 12, 13 and 14, 1948, for example, Gen. Marshall and aides waged a last-gasp bureaucratic battle behind the scenes in an unsuccessful effort to dissuade President Truman from recognizing the coming state of Israel. Fast forward to today, and Miss Rice (this time with presidential approval) seems determined to pound a weak Israeli government into a series of untenable security concessions. It’s a Foggy Bottom tradition that no one should be proud of.

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