In reiterating his vision for the Middle East–two states living side by side in peace and security–George W. Bush failed to lay out a viable path for reaching this essential goal. Israeli commentators agreed that Bush’s long-delayed speech, in which his support for a provisional Palestinian state was so hedged as to be nearly meaningless, could have been written by Ariel Sharon. David Landau wrote in Ha’aretz: “Yasser Arafat, the seemingly immortal leader of the Palestinian national movement, was politically assassinated” by the US President. Thus, Bush brushed aside a democratically elected leader while calling for more democracy, simplistically made Arafat the problem and his removal the condition for a solution, and opened a rift with US allies.
The plan–favored by the pro-Sharon hard-liners in the Administration, led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–is a victory for political expediency, but it does nothing to disempower the extremists on both sides. To have any chance of damping down terrorist violence, Washington had to offer the Palestinian people some hope of statehood, of control over their collective future. But Bush failed to call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and gave Sharon a green light for reoccupation, thereby endorsing the continuation of a failed policy. For Israel’s military incursions do not stop, and indeed foment, suicide bombers’ atrocities, as Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer pointed out. And if, as seems likely, the latest operation also fails, it will breed more violence and drain not only the devastated Palestinian economy but Israel’s–itself nearing collapse.
While Bush was right to call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces to pre-intifada lines and for a halt in settlement building, he left those actions to be accomplished in some vague middle distance after violence is ended–meaning whenever Israel decides to de-occupy. For the long term, Bush urged an end to the cruel occupation and the creation of a democratic Palestinian state. But the vision he offered is so conditioned, set so far in the future and so vulnerable to American and Israeli interpretations that it offers little incentive for moderate Palestinians–such as the more than fifty intellectuals who recently called for a halt to suicide bombings–to risk their lives trying to curb the radical elements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Arafat’s leadership has been corrupt and autocratic; democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority are needed. But what hope can those Palestinians committed to reform have when Israeli tanks are rumbling in their streets, their institutions and infrastructure are shattered, their compatriots under house arrest?
Bush did not even mention the international conference the Saudis and other nations requested to spur final-status talks. He said nothing about how the international community is to be mobilized to help the Palestinians achieve reforms. If he had made the bold gesture history demanded of him, he would have set a clear timeline for Palestinian statehood and called for an end to the Israeli invasion, dismantling of settlements, insertion of international forces and a firm US and international financial commitment to Palestinian nation-building and reform, including efforts to insure that the elections now set for January are free and fair. Instead, he temporized, and so, more Israelis and Palestinians will die.