Here’s a question for George W. Bush. Do you believe your June 24 speech on the Middle East crisis would give a Palestinian living in a refugee camp–perhaps in a town where Israeli forces shelled a market, killing women and children, and destroyed parts of a hospital–any solace, any hope?

Bush’s remarks were not–as they had been billed–an attempt to present a peace plan. The headline on the White House transcript said it all: “President Bush Calls for New Palestinian Leadership.” In very explicit terms, Bush declared that the fundamental problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests with the people in charge of the Palestinian Authority, notably Yasser Arafat. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the conditions of the Palestinians–none of that is the main deal. Sure, these are matters that ought to be addressed. But before anything else can happen, Bush said, the Palestinians have to elect different leaders, create “entirely new political and economic institutions,” build a market economy, end all corruption, and stop every act of terrorism. Then–maybe then–the United States will support a “provisional” Palestinian state of uncertain borders and uncertain sovereignty. And Bush is looking at backing such a “state” several years from now.

This is a tremendous leap backward from the position of pro-Israel hardliners–here and in Israel–who had been arguing that there should be no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks until all terrorism against Israel ceased. Bush dramatically expanded the list of conditions. Any Palestinian who bothered to pay attention to Bush’s speech–which was not broadcast on Palestinian television–might well say, “Previously, they only wanted us to stop the terrorists before talking about establishing a Palestinian state. Now, they want us to totally rebuild our society, develop a new political elite from scratch, establish government bureaucracies that actually work, develop a Western-style economy, and–while we’re busy with all this–prevent the worst extremists from striking at Israel. Once we’ve done that, they’ll deal with our primary grievances.”

What a deal. If they jump through all these hoops, the Palestinians, as Bush noted, “can count on American support for the creation of a provisional state of Palestine.” Bush might have as well come out and endorsed House majority leader Dick Armey’s suggestion to pack up all the Palestinians and move them elsewhere. (Where? Armey didn’t say.)

As pro-Palestinian author/activist Edward Said has noted, the crony-ridden and inept Palestinian Authority is in dire need of extensive reform. But Bush’s concern for democracy, transparency and good-government in Palestine is a smokescreen. (Does he call for such change, in say, Pakistan? Or China?) How does his approach respond to the desperation that leads Palestinians to cheer on suicide bombings? It is unrealistic to assume that any policy a US president adopts is going to cause most suicide-bomb plotters to pause and reconsider. The extremists behind these horrific actions are not interested in a negotiated two-state solution. But one goal of US policy should be to change the way suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism are received by the Palestinian populace. If such actions are widely seen as unproductive and a threat to tangible economic and political advances for Palestinians, there is a chance these strikes can be limited or, at least, isolated culturally. But there must indeed be gains that are threatened. Bush’s plan holds out nothing of the sort. His speech provides sustenance to the suicide-bombers and those Palestinians who argue negotiations are useless, for Bush is not even offering real-time negotiations.

This is a triumph for the pro-Israel hawks in the Bush administration–people like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz–who have been wrestling with the let’s-get-negotiations-going crowd led by Secretary of State Colin Powell. When Powell went to the Middle East a few months back, he said that justice for the Palestinians was as important as security for the Israelis. In his speech, Bush did recognize the deprivations of the Palestinians, criticize permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and call for an end to further Israeli “settlement activity” in the occupied territories. But this was all secondary to his main thrust: Palestinians, it’s up to you to change. Moreover, when Bush in April requested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon end Israel’s military incursion into the West Bank, Sharon ignored him and paid no price. The demands Bush presents to Sharon seem much more flexible than those he issues to the Palestinians.

This is no peace plan. It is more akin to a wish list. If only those unruly and unfortunate Palestinians would transform themselves into a democratic and prosperous community–without a trace of Arafat–wouldn’t life in the Middle East be less complicated? Then, of course, they could have a quasi-state of their own.

Days before Bush spoke, Arafat told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that he was now willing to accept a peace plan put forward by Bill Clinton in December 2000. The plan allowed Israel to keep control of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and to retain some of its settlements on the West Bank. It also required Palestinians to forego returning to homes they left in 1948. The plan went nowhere originally, as Clinton was heading out of office, violence had already broken out in the Middle East, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak was about to be defeated by Sharon. Perhaps Arafat’s nostalgic invocation of this missed-chance peace plan was merely a cynical ploy meant to buy him more time. (Over the years, he has been a master at acquiring time.) But it is unfortunate that he cannot be put to the test in a meaningful forum, for there is currently no process for settling the conflict. And if Bush has his way, there will be no talks until the Palestinians recreate themselves on his terms. This is not diplomacy, this is dictating. And it likely will do nothing to prevent future tragedies and acts of hatred.