First it was the Pope coming out against Israel's "humiliation" of the Palestinians, then, a day later, the President of the United States calling on Ariel Sharon to pull back his tanks. But don't think that Israel's Amen Corner didn't see it coming. You gotta give these guys credit: they know when someone is about to turn pro-American. PODDY'S LAMENT Norman Podhoretz, writing in the Jerusalem Post the day before Bush's statement, prefaced his condemnation of a President gone "wobbly" – as the War Party is now glumly putting it – with paragraph upon paragraph of unctuous praise. Yet he got out the knives before getting halfway through his screed by noting unhappily that Bush had once or twice used that suspect phrase "the cycle of violence" – and that this rhetorical gaffe was really the necessary prelude to his sending Vice President Dick Cheney on "a quixotic, unnecessary, and humiliating quest" seeking support for an effort to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Oh, George W. had been "incandescent" in the days and weeks following 9/11, and Poddy was particularly thrilled by the "axis of evil" speech; but, lately there have been worrying signs that the President has "suddenly lost his ability to see the obvious" – obvious to Norman Podhoretz, and his fellow neoconservatives, that is. ANOTHER WAR The war that the Stormin' Norman of the literary world wants America to fight is not, it turns out, the war Bush thinks he is fighting. Why is he listening to Crown Prince Abdullah, Egypt, and even Israel's strategic partner, Turkey – whose government the other day accused Israel of committing "genocide" against the Palestinians? Bush has been "blinded," avers Norman, "by the Saudi mirage," and therefore: "He could not see that the goal of the Arab world has always been, and still is, to destroy the state of Israel. "He could not see that Crown Prince Abdullah's 'peace initiative' did not represent a renunciation of that goal, but was only a cynical public-relations ploy to counter the bad press the Saudis had been getting in the United States since September 11." THE KNIVES COME OUT Bush, says Podhoretz, is having the "wool pulled over his eyes by his Secretary of State, Colin Powell" – why, the President even called Sharon's brutal offensive, in which untold numbers of civilians have been killed and wounded, "unhelpful." So, after that long, ingratiating build-up – all about how the President had never fallen for all the arguments of "moral equivalence" – Podhoretz commences the insults, implying that Bush is a dunce easily deceived by his advisors. Oh, how quickly they turn! The knives are out in the open, now, for a simple and easily foreseeable reason. The argument that Podhoretz and his cohorts are making and have always made is that Israel's fight is our fight. In a statement published the day before the President's announcement, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard and a group of prominent neoconservatives issued an "Open Letter to the President" that stated their view of the war plainly: "You have declared war on international terrorism, Mr. President. Israel is fighting the same war." Except that now the President is clearly saying, no it isn't: "Consistent with the Mitchell plan, Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop. And the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognize boundaries consistent with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. Ultimately, this approach should be the basis of agreements between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon." ABDULLAH'S COUP The President, in short, is endorsing the Saudi peace plan, co-authored, it seems, by Crown Prince Abdullah and Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist who acted as a conduit for what may yet prove to be a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process. As the President stated: "The recent Arab League support of Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative for peace is promising, is hopeful, because it acknowledges Israel's right to exist. And it raises the hope of sustained, constructive Arab involvement in the search for peace. This builds on a tradition of visionary leadership, begun by President Sadat and King Hussein, and carried forward by President Mubarak and King Abdullah." The Saudi peace proposal, which recognizes Israel's legitimacy and promises "normal" relations in return for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and Palestinian statehood, has delivered the War Party a stunning blow, and sent them reeling, muttering and cursing their erstwhile allies for faintness of heart. It's that old "Saudi mirage" again. Poor Podhoretz must've gone through the roof! Say what, is peace breaking out all over? Can nothing be done about this? THE SINS OF ISRAEL But there was worse – much worse – to follow, a riff on Israel's responsibility for the crisis that no doubt had poor old Poddy apoplectic with rage: "Israel should also show a respect, a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people who are and will be their neighbors. It is crucial to distinguish between the terrorists and ordinary Palestinians seeking to provide for their own families. "The Israeli government should be compassionate at checkpoints and border crossings, sparing innocent Palestinians daily humiliation. Israel should take immediate action to ease closures and allow peaceful people to go back to work." BETWEEN THE LINES The word "humiliation" is very important here, as it echoes the stern condemnation by His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, "of the conditions of injustice and humiliation imposed on the Palestinian people." Also noteworthy is the Bushian emphasis on distinguishing between "ordinary Palestinians" and terrorists: this, too, is reminiscent of the Pope's restatement of the Catholic "just war" thesis, reminding the Israelis in particular of "proportionality in the use of legitimate means of defense." The "c"-word also bears watching: George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative," isn't going to stand idly by while Sharon shoots up Christian churches, blocks ambulances, and assassinates Arafat accidentally-on-purpose in full view of the television cameras. Also significant is the mention of Palestinian families, and the characterization of them as peaceful people who want only to work: all this humanizes the Palestinians far too much for the tastes of the neocons, who equate Arafat with Osama bin Laden. THE BITTEREST PILL As if all that were not enough, the neocons had an even more bitter pill left to swallow. Yes, to be sure, "America recognizes Israel's right to defend itself from terror," but still, you guys gotta get out: "To lay the foundations of future peace, I ask Israel to halt incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas and begin the withdrawal from those cities it has recently occupied." Well, Ariel, you're either with us, or you're against us: which is it going to be? FATHER AND SON In a perceptive Los Angeles Times piece on the history of the neoconservative influence in the GOP and the foreign, policy councils of state, and their growing disaffection with George W. Bush, Ronald Brownstein avers that the issue is the measure of the difference between Bush I and Bush II: "Today, the evolution of Republican thinking is encapsulated in the space between George W. Bush and his father. "'Bush 41 just had a different view on this one,' said the White House official sympathetic to the conservative critique. 'I just think President Bush is closer to Reagan than his father in his instincts on many things, and Israel is one of them. When you listen to him, his instincts are more to be critical of Arafat than his father's were.'" Ah, not so fast. Never mind what George W. Bush says: look at what he does, and is doing. He's sending the man who "pulled the wool over his eyes," as Podhoretz would have it, perhaps to meet with Arafat: that is, if the Israelis will let Powell through – and if Arafat is still in any condition to receive him. Remember, they tried to keep US envoy Anthony Zinni from the Arafat compound, on the grounds that they couldn't guarantee his safety: although, as Bob Novak noted the other day on the new, and truly horrible Crossfire, Zinni, a Marine General, was certainly willing to risk it. I can hardly wait for the showdown that is coming, and, again, I have to raise the question: Well, Ariel, you're either with us, or you're against us: which is it going to be? DIVERGING ROADS It is true that, in his public statements – and quite unlike the Pope – the President has indeed leaned toward putting the onus on Arafat and the Palestinians. But, in the end, the neocons run up against a simple fact of reality, one which they have never been able to accept or get around: Israel and the US are not the same country. They are, instead, two distinct national entities separated by geography, history, culture, and disparate geopolitical interests – and those interests have now diverged. It was Tim Russert, of NBC's Meet the Press, who put the issue in focus, in an interview on MSNBC. Asked if it was possible to separate the outbreak of war in Palestine from the President's own "war on terrorism," Russert replied: "It's very, very difficult to separate one from the other. Remember, prior to about a week or 10 days ago, Osama bin Laden was Public Enemy No. 1 — the world was focused on him and al-Qaida, focused on Afghanistan, focused on the war on terrorism and routing out the cells in the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, wherever. Suddenly the world's attention has moved to the Middle East, that battle, that conflict is center stage along with a debate about 'is it the Palestinians, is it the Israelis? Who's at fault?' A sense of moral equivalency is beginning to resurface. The president wants to readdress that debate and say, 'Wait a minute. There is no moral equivalency between the United States of America and its allies and the terrorist. So let's try to bring some resolve, at least a cease-fire to the Middle East so we can once again refocus the world's attention on this war against terrorism.'" Russert might have added: it's very, very difficult to separate Israel's war from the war on terrorism because of neocon influence in the GOP and the kneejerk Israel First lobby in the US. But certainly now, with this new presidential initiative, these are the precisely the forces he will come up against on the home front. TURNABOUT Suddenly, the very same people who demanded that we cease all criticism of the President and his policies in the aftermath of 9/11 – and were even keeping lists of anyone who dissented in any way – are now screeching their condemnation. National Review was first up to bat, with an article by Mark L. Levin accusing Bush of "Vietnamizing" the war on terrorism and averring: "Whereas President Bush has asked the civilized world to stand with the US. against terrorism, Israel, which is besieged by terrorists and their sponsors, is not receiving the administration's unqualified support. By his own words, the president has effectively rescinded the Bush Doctrine. In its stead, the White House is imposing a policy on Israel akin to America's approach to the Vietnam War." By Vietnamizing, Levin means holding back and forbidding an outright victory by militarily superior forces – but what he fails to acknowledge is that we are talking about Israeli forces here, not Americans, and a military action ordered by Sharon, and not the President of the United States. The neocons prefer to leave such distinctions as blurred as possible. NEOCON QUANDARY The neocons, who put unqualified support for Israel at the top of their agenda, and yet pose as the most consistent and militant fighters in the President's "war on terrorism," now find themselves in a quandary. For the reality is that no war to root out Al Qaeda – remember them? – can be waged without the active cooperation of the Arab states, some of whom are Israel's sworn enemies. So the neocons must choose: will they shut up and salute the President for his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, or will they succumb to their worst – dare I say it? – anti-American instincts, and denounce our alleged "sell-out" of Israel? I would advise the former, but I doubt they'll take my advice. KISS ME IN BEIRUT For now, it seems, even the long-awaited assault on Iraq seems to be up in the air. What vexed Podhoretz about the Cheney trip was the idea that the Americans felt they had to ask permission of Iraq's neighbors before launching a campaign to topple Saddam: that the Vice President didn't get a green light seems more than obvious, and a good part of the reason has to do with Sharon's antics on the West Bank. Furthermore, the President's tilt toward the Saudi peace plan bodes ill for Gulf War II, especially since Prince Abdullah and the Iraqi representative to the recent Arab summit in Beirut not only embraced but sealed their newfound friendship with a kiss! That's one very public same-sex smooch that isn't going to be hailed by Andrew Sullivan. LET THE FIREWORKS BEGIN Poor Andy Sullivan, the gay Catholic and Republican sympathizer who will now have to take on not only President Bush but also the Pope! It must be hard. However, the rest of the neocons, all ex-Democrats (or ex-Trotskyists, depending on how far back you want to go) will have no trouble changing horses in midstream. As I have pointed out on many occasions, their own loyalties have always been clear: in any conflict between the US and Israel, they have always defended the latter no matter what. So, stand back, and let the fireworks begin.