On June 24, President George W. Bush delivered his long-awaited speech on the Middle East. Most of his 15-minute statement was devoted to harsh criticism of the Palestinians, including the assertion that “peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership . . . not compromised by terrorism.” In addition to ditching Yasser Arafat and ending the system in which “power is concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few,” the President told the Palestinians that they had to eradicate corruption, reform security services, create an independent judiciary, empower the legislature, and “build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty.” Mr. Bush declared that Palestinian democratic transformation must consist of more than “cosmetic changes or a veiled attempt to preserve the status quo.” If fully and willingly applied, he said, those changes would form the basis of a peace process that might lead to a “provisional” Palestinian state.
Mr. Bush talked briefly but approvingly of Israel’s right to defend herself, indirectly condoning Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s attempt to deal with the Palestinians through military means. He equated Palestinian suicide attacks with the global “terror” against which America is at war. He made no demand for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, which has long been regarded as a prerequisite to any serious peacemaking effort, but said that the Israeli army should withdraw to positions it held on the West Bank before the latest round of troubles began on September 28, 2000. He stated that Israel should refrain from building further Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but he did not specify whether the practice of expanding existing settlements must end. At some point in the future, according to Mr. Bush, Israel should agree to pull back to the lines it held before the 1967 Six-Day War, but this has to be preceded by negotiations based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 that call for “secure and recognized” borders—the term Ariel Sharon has used to defend retaining large swathes of occupied land.
The reaction to the address around the world was aptly summarized by the Times of London on June 26: “President Bush’s speech on the Middle East was so pro-Israel that it might have been written by Ariel Sharon.” The Independent’s columnist wondered,
why doesn’t Mr. Bush let Ariel Sharon run the White House press bureau? Not only would it be more honest—we would at least be hearing the voice of Israel at first hand—but it would spare the American President the ignominy of parroting everything he is told by the Israelis.
The BBC’s Jeremy Cooke opined that, for Sharon, “Mr. Bush’s speech was a political victory on a scale he could not have imagined.” A few Arab commentators tried to put on a brave face, saying that some prospect of Palestinian statehood is better than none. The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth was closer to the mark when it declared that “Sharon can demand copyright on the speech.” Ruby Rivlin, the Israeli government’s communication minister and a member of Sharon’s Likud Party, was equally blunt: “It looks like it was written by a senior Likud official. We are talking about a pro-Israeli speech and a victory for the course taken by Prime Minister Sharon.”
The leaders of America’s allies in the industrialized world privately agree and have refrained from offering more than a polite nod to Mr. Bush’s Middle East initiative at the Group of Eight summit in Canada. All of them would like to see Washington put more pressure on Israel, but in the wake of Bush’s failed European tour and a looming trade war, they want to avoid the appearance of another transatlantic rift.
It is noteworthy—and puzzling—that the President avoided dwelling on all four core problems of the dispute: the final borders of Israel and her future Palestinian neighbor; the standing and future of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories; the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites; and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Mr. Bush ended his address on an incongruously haughty note, quoting from the Old Testament: “I have set before you life and death, therefore choose life.” Pretentiousness is fine when you have some words and deeds—preferably miracles—to back it up, but at the end of this speech, the quote sounded like a taunt to the Palestinians.
In the aftermath of the President’s address, all-too-many young Palestinians may choose a loud, TNT-wired death; within their Islamic belief system, the choice may seem reasonable. In the short term, the main effect of President Bush’s position on the ground will be to encourage Sharon to escalate his military response and to ignore calls to resume dialogue. Israeli tanks plowing in and out of Ramallah, Jenin, or Hebron, and a few Palestinian deaths today and more Israeli victims of suicide bombers tomorrow, will cease to be front-page news.
Mr. Bush’s speech was problematic for at least five reasons. The first and most obvious is that Mr. Bush’s conditions for reform of the Palestinian Authority cannot be met. Deliberately or not, he has set the bar so high that neither Arafat nor any likely or imaginable successor can leap it, now or in the foreseeable future. No Arab state is a functioning Western-style democracy, for reasons of history, religion, and psychology too complex to discuss here. Expecting the Palestinian Authority to become an exception—and to do so more or less overnight, while simultaneously ridding itself of its existing political leadership—is either naive or disingenuous. Since the President’s speech was the product of long and comprehensive consultations between Washington and Jerusalem, naivete is not an option.
The second problem is that, even if the tunnel could be traversed, the light offered to the Palestinians is not attractive enough to inspire the effort. Chairman Arafat and his corrupt cronies will have no incentive to comply, and, thus, Mr. Bush’s target audience remains unclear. Even if there were potential American allies within the Palestinian leadership, they would need a far more attractive package to convince them to risk their reputations—and, quite possibly, lives—by confronting Arafat. “Conditional” statehood, a murky and ambiguous concept, will never provide the rallying cry for a new, “moderate” Palestinian leadership.
The third problem is that Bush’s concept leaves U.S. policy firmly in the grips of Israeli decision makers. He has made even the limited Israeli withdrawal to the positions of September 2000 conditional on Palestinian “progress toward security.” A single suicide bombing could lead the Israeli cabinet to conclude that “progress” has been compromised. Bush’s statement that Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories should be “consistent with the recommendations of the Mitchell report” ensures that Israel can stall for as long as she pleases. And finally, Mr. Bush’s three-year timeline means that the Palestinians will not get their statehood if Israel decides that the hypothetical new Palestinian leadership is not demonstrating “real performance.” As long as the criteria for measuring Palestinian “progress” remain undefined, the Israeli government has ample excuse for postponing statehood ad infinitum.
The fourth problem is that greater democracy in Palestine, like elsewhere in the Muslim world, plays into the hands of the hardliners. Washington’s demand for Arafat’s ouster will bolster his popularity at a time when his standing among his own people was in decline. Arafat is aware of the political capital that he has been given by the President; opposing or criticizing him now will appear tantamount to siding with America and Israel. In addition, continuing Israeli military actions will further erode the resentment against his team’s ineptitude, corruption, and mismanagement. He will try to seize the day: Only two days after the President’s speech, the Palestinian Authority announced that presidential and legislative elections would be held next January. If Arafat runs and wins again—as he probably will—U.S. policy will be painted into a corner of Sharon’s making. Refusing to talk to him would freeze the status quo, while accepting him yet again as an interlocutor would further diminish Mr. Bush’s credibility.
This is a no-win situation for the United States. Worse still, the likely long-term “democratic” alternative to Arafat is not a “pro-Western moderate” but an Islamic militant. As former senator George Mitchell, author of the Mitchell Report, has warned, “There’s a risk that someone from Hamas or Islamic Jihad could succeed Arafat, which would make it much, much worse than the current situation.” Support among the Palestinians for those extremist groups has more than doubled since the start of the intifada, almost matching the 30-percent support levels Arafat enjoys.
The fifth and most serious problem with Mr. Bush’s “vision” is its lack of vision. His State Department will continue to act incrementally: put together a ceasefire, then “build trust,” then get a “peace process” under way, all the while leaving the vexing political issues for later. That has been tried and found wanting. Another failure is inevitable. The vicious cycle of terror and military attacks can only be broken by a fair and comprehensive end-of-conflict political agreement. The 1993 Oslo Accords that collapsed, and the subsequent Mitchell and Tenet stillborn plans, were all based on incremental “confidence-building”—steps that failed to end the violence or to build any confidence at all.
In order to break the structural deadlock, America needs to develop a detailed political blueprint for a final settlement, which the two sides are unwilling or unable to negotiate for themselves. The key criterion should be the American interest, pragmatically and quantifiably defined, rather than the goals of certain ethnic-religious lobbies and special-interest groups that seek to impose their own agenda on the rest of America. That interest includes the continued existence of the state of Israel, on geopolitical rather than emotional, moral, or biblical grounds. It therefore demands a settlement that would remove the constant threat to Israel’s existence from its Arab neighbors. The concept of “land for peace” is still fundamentally valid, but it needs to be rethought. Israel must give up Gaza and most of the West Bank, of course, where the Palestinians will establish their own independent state. In return, the Palestinians and other Arabs must formally relinquish all claims on the Jewish state. In addition, adjustments must be made to the pre-1967 borders, with Israel and the Palestinians swapping territory and Jerusalem being divided but shared. These are real goals, and they demand real strategies. Interim states and provisional states, limited sovereignties, and similar silly constructs are neither real nor useful.
America must learn how to pressure Israel to accomplish the structural requirements for a stable peace in the Middle East and, in the longer term, to save Israel from her own failed policies. There are two tools: American-made military hardware, Israel’s use of which should be far more closely monitored; and money—presently ten million dollars a day in direct subsidies. Both must be used for everyone’s good, including Israel’s. George W. Bush’s present refusal to do so may be seen as a victory for Ariel Sharon and for the Amen Corner in Washington. As we enter the third year of murderous violence in the Middle East, neither Israel nor the United States can afford many more such victories.