By Michael Freund. Source Jerusalem Post, March 20, 2003.
Did the president really say what I think he said? Speaking in the White House Rose Garden this past Friday, a clearly delighted Colin Powell at his side, George W. Bush went ahead and used the O word, as in "occupied," when describing Israel's heartland of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
In laying out his vision for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Bush said that, "as progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end," the implication being that Jewish housing construction somehow inhibits Middle Eastern harmony.
With the United States poised to liberate Baghdad, the president's use of the O word might seem a matter of secondary importance, as the entire region will soon undergo a fundamental transformation of historic proportions. America is about to reshuffle the Arab deck, with far-reaching consequences for nearly every country involved.
But with all the uncertainty regarding precisely what will emerge in the post-Saddam era, there is one issue about which there should be little doubt. Once the Iraqis get walloped, Russia, Europe and the Arab world will intensify their criticism, seeking to force Bush to "balance" his liberation of Iraq with independence for the Palestinians.
In fact, such pressure is already starting to mount. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, Bush's Friday statement came as "a result of pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair." Blair, the Times noted, has been demanding that the White House adopt the road map leading to a Palestinian state so as "to quell the anger throughout the Arab world over the Bush administration's perceived focus on Iraq."
Hence, the president's reference to the "occupied territories" and his call for the establishment of a Palestinian state should not be written off lightly. Rather, it is just a small taste of what is yet to come.
To be fair, the White House's stance on Judea, Samaria and Gaza is hardly new. American presidents have long been vocally opposed to the expansion of Jewish communities in the territories, even as they remained inexplicably silent about the illegal growth of neighboring Arab villages.
But Bush is not just any American president. Unlike his predecessors, he has pushed Yasser Arafat into a corner, courageously stood up to Saddam Hussein, underlined the need for democratization of the Arab world and launched a far-reaching global war on terror. It may sound cliched, but he is by far "the best friend Israel has had in the White House" in a good long time.
AND THAT is what makes his latest remarks so puzzling.
For as a number of recent stories in the US press have made amply clear, Bush is a religious man who takes his Christian faith seriously. And yet, if Jesus were alive today, the US State Department would likely criticize him for being a Jewish settler and an obstacle to peace.
After all, according to the New Testament, Jesus was a Jew born in Bethlehem, which is south of Jerusalem, in what Colin Powell considers the "occupied territory" of Judea. His parents were Jews who undoubtedly prayed at a local Bethlehem synagogue, learned Torah at a local study hall, and bought food at the local kosher marketplace. Thus they were Jewish settlers in every respect.
Needless to say, the New Testament itself contains no mention of the word "Palestine" or "Palestinians," for the simple reason that they did not exist. All told, in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the terms "Judah" or "Judea" appear 877 times, and "Samaria" is used on 123 occasions. There is no reference to phrases such as the "West Bank" or "occupied territories," as Islam had not yet even come into being.
It is therefore hard to understand why the president would consent to pressure Israel to turn over Judea, Samaria and Gaza to the Palestinians, for he would appear to be acting contrary to what his own hallowed text seems to demonstrate, namely, that these areas belong to the Jewish people and no one else.
The same goes for Israel's capital, where many of the events in the Christian bible, such as the last supper on Mount Zion, the denunciation in the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion on Golgotha are all described as having taken place in Jerusalem in Roman-occupied Jewish Jerusalem, that is.
Hence, Christians who accept Palestinian demands to Jerusalem are essentially denying the validity of their own traditions.
It is imperative, then, that American Christian supporters of Israel launch an all-out effort to remind Bush of these facts and counter the pressure he is coming under from the likes of Tony Blair and Colin Powell.
Bush is an honest and decent man, true to himself and his belief system. But he is facing enormous pressure to mollify the Arabs at the expense of the Jewish state, and he will therefore need a great deal of public backing if he is to stand up to it.
Since Bush is a man of faith, Christian supporters of Israel should appeal to him using a faith-based approach, pointing out that the New Testament he professes to believe in provides ample evidence that places such as Bethlehem and Hebron have nothing to do with the Palestinians, and everything to do with Israel.
Of course I, as a Jew, personally look to the Torah for validation of my people's unbreakable connection to the Land of Israel and exclusive rights to it. As far as I am concerned the views of the Prophets take precedence over those of Colin Powell any day.
Once the war in Iraq is over, though, Bush will likely have to make a choice between the two.
Now is the time for American Christians to speak out and remind him that when it comes to politics versus prophecy, the man of faith must ultimately follow his heart.
The writer served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999.