Running for Cover
   by Gene Lyons

      Once again aides escorted President Junior to a White House podium amid excited speculation. Wearing his
determined face, with only the faintest apprehension in his eyes, managing for once not to look like a fraternity boy
who'd borrowed his older brother's clothing to appear before a traffic judge, Bush read his much-anticipated,
twice-delayed address on the Middle East.

      If ever a presidential speech was written by committee, this was it. Ever since the latest sickening wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals forced Bush to quit pretending that the crisis would magically pass if he ignored it or blamed his predecessor, we've been reading reports like this one in the Chicago Tribune: "Inside the White House...a struggle over emphasis and nuance has played out between pro-Israel hard-liners, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who would grant no concessions to the Palestinians until all terror attacks cease, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has aired the Arab argument that Palestinian desperation over the deferred dream of a state is fueling the violence."

      As ever, the missing factor in the equation is President Junior, tacitly understood to have no informed opinions worth reporting, although news organizations expecting future White House access won't say so. Since the hard-line argument is always the simpler one, with its neat action/adventure film division of a complex situation into good guys vs. "evildoers" there was little doubt about which side would prevail. Even so, it was shocking to see how little of Powell's perspective appeared in Bush's speech. A few rote sentences about Palestinian suffering was about all. "I can understand the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people," Bush said. "For decades you've been treated as pawns in the Middle East conflict."

      Scant weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon openly defied Bush's stern demands that his troops withdraw from the West Bank at once, much as the Afghan Northern Alliance had earlier ignored the Commander-in-Chief's instructions to refrain from attacking Kabul. Like the Afghan warlords, Sharon had shrewdly taken Bush's measure. Sure enough, Bush was soon describing the Israeli Prime Minister, a lifelong warrior who has greatly accelerated the building of West Bank settlements on Palestinian land and repeatedly vowed never to surrender them, as "a man of peace."

       On Monday, Sharon's defiance earned him an even bigger reward. "The president's speech," according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, "is a huge triumph for Ariel Sharon. At the end of last year, the Israeli prime minister seemed either naive or perverse, or both, when he pledged to render [Palestinian leader Yassir] Arafat 'irrelevant.' Now, he can cogently contend, he has won his case convincingly before what for Israel is the highest court of world opinion: the U.S. government."

      Politically speaking, wrote Ha'aretz, which has consistently opposed Sharon's expansionism, Arafat appears to be a "dead man walking." See, it's the Palestinian pawns whom Junior expects to bear all the responsibility. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders not compromised by terror," Bush announced grandly. "When the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions, and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state."

      Yes, and when cows fly, we'll milk them in trees. With Israeli tanks in the streets and helicopter gunships hovering overhead, the Palestinians are now asked to locate among themselves a Jefferson and Madison, inscribe a democratic constitution, and hold free elections. "How the Palestinians can be expected to carry out elections or reform themselves while in a total lockdown by the Israeli military," the New York Times drily editorializes "remains something of a mystery." Possibly Junior can volunteer the services of Katherine Harris and Antonin Scalia to help count the votes.

      Meanwhile, Sharon and the Israelis are called upon to make no concessions whatsover unless and until the Palestinians accomplish this democratic miracle. For months Sharon enlisted the U.S. in the absurd pretense that the unreliable, ever-shifty Arafat, held under virtual house arrest in his own beseiged compound, could somehow restrain the lunatic militants of Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad even as Israeli soldiers systematically eliminated the Palestinian infrastructure--bulldozing offices, destroying communications networks, and decimating Arafat's security forces.

           It now appears that the Israelis have been granted all but formal permission to do away with Arafat permanently by almost any means they choose. Otherwise, there's nothing to prevent him from winning the upcoming elections. Moreover, Sharon isn't the only one "empowered" by Bush's speech. In essence, Bush has awarded veto power to Hamas and the rest of the fanatics who see a limited Palestinian state as an impediment to their mad dream of destroying Israel altogether. This isn't a Middle Eastern policy; it's an abdication of responsibilty by a president eager to shift the blame.

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