For a speech that inspired great internal debate among his aides, George W. Bush’s remarks on June 24 ended up saying little and meaning less. His new "plan" only simulates real involvement. Full of worthy sentiments, wishful hopes and tough-sounding rhetoric, it just barely disguises Mr. Bush’s ongoing abdication.
As a "vision" of what he would like to see happen in Israel and Palestine, the President’s speech was perfectly nice. He wants to see two democratic states, living side by side in peace, with honest governments and thriving market economies, all buttressed by the rule of law. He would like the Palestinians to benefit from the American political example, with a constitution, separation of powers and effective local government.
Unfortunately, however, Mr. Bush offers nothing beyond sonorous advice and familiar promises—no plan to be implemented, no peace conference to be convened, no scheme that even begins to address the difficult issues of territorial sovereignty and human relocation that underlie the continuing carnage. He mentioned a timetable of three years, without any schedule that might allow such a deadline to be met, and without even a nod to the Arab peace proposal outlined in Beirut last March.
Under the suasion of the hard-liners in his own Cabinet and of domestic political considerations as well, Mr. Bush has completed his abandonment of positions he staked out only a few months ago. Where he once acknowledged the "legitimate aspirations" of the Palestinians for an independent and viable state, he now insists that they must first "embrace democracy, confront corruption and firmly reject terror."
Such stringent conditions will never be imposed on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a state we have provided with massive security assistance; or on Egypt, a state we have subsidized for decades with military and economic aid; or on Kuwait, a state we defended with American blood and treasure. Only the Palestinians must suddenly meet these insurmountable demands—and do so within 36 months—in order to qualify for statehood and economic aid.
Last April, Mr. Bush demanded that the Israelis withdraw their troops from the occupied territories immediately, and of course Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ignored him. Now he vaguely recommends that Israel should withdraw as "we make progress toward security," while in the meantime "Israel will continue to defend herself." He doesn’t seem to realize that Mr. Sharon has humiliated him.
If the President’s speech means anything, it is that Mr. Sharon can proceed as though there were no American government looking over his shoulder. For as the Israeli leader knows, the Palestinians are in no position to fulfill the requirements which Mr. Bush has laid out, and they are in no mood to do so even if they could. With the Palestinian Authority in smoking ruins, by what means are the Palestinians supposed to "engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure"?
So intentionally or not, the American President played into Mr. Sharon’s utterly obvious strategy. His policy is to destroy the embryonic Palestinian state and leave Palestinian nationalism wholly in the hands of the Islamists—who share the former general’s views on the primacy of force and the futility of negotiation. With Hamas and Hezbollah ascendant, Israel’s rightists need never seek a viable peace treaty, thus avoiding indefinitely all the inevitable, painful requirements of surrendered land, dismantled settlements and a shared Jerusalem. That is why Mr. Sharon waited so long to take any action against the Hamas stronghold in Gaza, while eagerly assaulting the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.
It is easy to sympathize with Mr. Bush’s desire to see Yasir Arafat retired. The Palestinian leader is a murderous and duplicitous figure. He is, as Mr. Bush implied, an unworthy and unreliable partner in the peace process. His calls for "a thousand martyrs" were criminal incitements, uttered to preserve his own hide. When he announced last week that he would suddenly be willing to accept the same Clinton administration peace proposal he rejected almost two years and many atrocities ago, he only underlined his own defects.
But we know all that about the man in the keffiyeh. We also know there is no one else with whom to talk. A free election in the Palestinian cities and camps today (if such a thing were possible, which it is not) would either return Mr. Arafat to office or replace him with someone worse. Alternatively, he might well be forced to seat a parliament where he would be subject to a Hamas veto.
Those are the unpleasant realities that no American demand or injunction will erase. There are three million increasingly radicalized Palestinians. The horrific acts of terror carried out in their name won’t be ended by military means alone. Yet the Bush speech offered them no realistic hope for change. Its tilt in favor of Mr. Sharon only promoted the political fortunes of the rejectionist factions on both sides, and is likely to lead to more terror rather than less.
You may reach Joe Conason via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org