Bush’s Palestine

Ever since the failed Camp David Summit of July 2000, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been shaped by a striking anomaly. All the parties— Arab, Israeli, European, and American— have concluded that a peaceful Palestinian state must be part of a final solution to the conflict. But nearly two years of violence pressed by the Palestinian leadership have convinced the same parties that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, as currently constituted, cannot create such a state. How then to go forward?

On June 24, 2002, George W. Bush offered an answer to this question when he reaffirmed support for a Palestinian state but only one with a leadership not tainted by corruption and terrorism. Washington would not play midwife to a deformed state. Instead, Bush sketched a three-year period of Palestinian preparations, helped (perhaps guided would be more accurate) by the U.S. and others, to suppress terror, practice democratic politics, and create an honest financial system. Midway through, the President foresaw a Palestine with provisional borders. At the end there would be secure and recognized borders between Israel and Palestine plus negotiated solutions to Jerusalem, settlements, and refugees.

Bush’s speech, although only seventeen minutes long, reportedly went through twenty-eight drafts, a vast number even by Washington’s prolix standards. This reflects a serious struggle for the President’s mind, between the war against terrorism that brooks no exception for special causes and the devilish complexities of the U.S. role in the Middle East: ally and mediator, peacemaker and belligerent, superpower and coalitionist.

By all accounts the two suicide bombings on June 12 and June 18 — the last claimed by the al Aqsa Brigades tied to Arafat’s Fatah Party and his payroll — confirmed the President’s view that Arafat was not only part of the problem but on the wrong side of the war against terrorism.

After the six-day delay because of the violence, Bush delivered his speech flanked by the Secretaries of State and Defense and the National Security Advisor. Powell quickly informed The New York Times (June 25) of his robust support for the policy, hoping to end speculation over quarrels in the Administration. Still, there could be no doubt that Bush’s speech favored one approach over another.

The internal debate might be seen this way. Powell’s earlier idea of an international conference to sketch political horizons was a device to commit the U.S. to a plan of action and to give Arafat reasons to call off the war. It would have been another version of what had been attempted last year by the Mitchell-Tenet plans and U.S. endorsement of a Palestinian state but more so; more detail about American views on final status issues and a more definite timeline for statehood. This time around, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan would also be urging Arafat to take the lifeline. But this option carried its own perils. The new proposals might look like a reward for terrorism, enough to rouse domestic and Israeli opposition but not enough to satisfy the Palestinians.

On this last point Arafat hastened to signal flexibility. He dispatched his chief negotiator Saeb Erekat to Washington with a Palestinian peace plan while informing the Israelis through an interview that he now accepted the Clinton ideas, circa December 2000. This appeared dubious twice over: urging Bush to adopt Clinton’s approach and Sharon to adopt Barak’s. Add to that the bombings and Arafat had given Washington a short course in why he was no longer a partner.

Opposition to the political horizonists was thus strengthened paradoxically by the would-be Palestinian beneficiaries themselves. Still, even in Washington, you cannot defeat something with nothing. Bush therefore took a new approach. The Palestinian partner had to be rehabilitated and only then would statehood be granted in stages. Out went the conference to confer early statehood; in went demands for a “new Palestine” and, in the final tweaking after the bombings, the President’s insistence on a new leadership. There would be no reward for terrorism; these requirements were significantly higher than those demanded by Washington before the intifada and there was nothing in them that resembled the Clinton “parameters.”


Reactions to the Speech

Conflicting internal views about the speech and its lengthy editing process left outsiders in possession of outdated leaks about its ultimate form. Reactions therefore ranged from the outraged to the confused to the cautious. Those pundits who demanded Bush’s “engagement” on behalf of a U.S. plan evidently assumed that it would have to be one that accelerated Palestinian statehood and Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines; the “plan” offered by the President was therefore a grievous disappointment. Others faulted Bush for laying too much emphasis on displacing Arafat either because they saw the problem as bigger than the Rais (e.g., the Palestinian people or Islam in general) or because they could not conceive of an alternative to Arafat. The Europeans (and the UN) fell into this latter category where they were joined by the main Arab states.

This soon proved embarrassing. America’s allies in the war against terrorism were now defending an Arafat not only “tainted” by terrorism but more importantly with a year-long record of unfilled promises on the subject. Those who argued to Bush that nothing could happen without the Palestinian leader were silent about what could happen with him. In the final analysis, however, no European leader wanted a big public fight with Bush over Arafat.

The Arab governments reacted very carefully, finding in Bush’s words encouragement that the ending of Israel’s occupation would be followed sooner rather than later by a Palestinian state. As for reforms, why even the Palestinians favored them. The speech was “balanced,” said Egyptian President Mubarak, but it needed clarification and details, a position shared by the Saudi foreign minister.

The Palestinians rallied briefly behind Arafat’s honor while he pretended that the “new leadership” did not exclude him. Evidence abounded that the Rais and his men expected a very different speech. The “hundred days of reform”; the shifting of posts and personalities; the official Palestinian plan delivered to Washington; Arafat’s talk about the Clinton proposals — all seemed intended to show that the Palestinians would be “reformed and ready” for statehood and final status talks in only a few months, with an election thrown in later to confirm it all. But this was not Bush’s idea of Palestine.

In Jerusalem, the Israelis were elated. Sharon’s dogged insistence that Arafat was behind the violence, disqualifying him as the Palestinian partner, was now U.S. policy. But the Israelis still had an existential problem, the war itself. Within a week of Bush’s speech, the IDF had reoccupied all the major Palestinian towns except a quiet Jericho and the Gaza Strip. The Israelis were also constructing a fence across the West Bank on lines that the Palestinians (and some Israeli settlers) feared lest they become permanent borders. A lengthy Israeli military occupation of Palestinian cities and unilateral decisions on final status issues would be a highly combustible outcome for all, including the Sharon government.


Post-Oslo: Bush’s Palestine

Bush’s speech and Israel’s return to the Palestinian cities ended the formality of Oslo and, with it, Arafat’s status as a partner for peace. Those who argued that Arafat must remain the partner because of his essentially uncontested election in 1996 overlooked this fact: he had been and would continue to be a Palestinian leader but his position as Rais of the Palestinian Authority — and the Authority itself— owed its legitimacy to Oslo. Arafat’s intifada and his renewed alliance with terrorists had violated the heart of his pact with Israel; he had disqualified himself, bringing the Palestinians neither peace nor victory. This had now been recognized by the United States.

Yet, the circumstances that produced Oslo were still evident. Both sides hate the status quo, neither will risk a final status deal and no outside power, in the absence of directly applied military force, can alter these facts. Bush’s proposals are therefore another attempt to take an intermediate step in the hope that subsequent improvements would lead either to the long-awaited final agreement or at least to a more comfortable stopping place. Unlike Oslo, however, the U.S. and other governments will be taking a much closer hand rather than relying on Israel and the Palestinians to sort it out.

Bush’s Palestine is predicated upon the ability of outside powers, including the U.S., the E.U., Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, to work with the Palestinians in rehabilitating their bid for statehood. This means loosening Arafat’s grip on purse and pistol, improving the security and economic situation quickly, and consequently shortening the Israeli occupation of densely populated Palestinian areas.

Can it be done? The two-fold tests of honest administration and suppression of terrorism can be passed by an internationally assisted Palestinian leadership willing to do so. The donors know how to control the purse strings; and the CIA, the Mossad, Egypt’s and Jordan’s secret services can work the security issue. In short, where lies the will lies the way.

That will, however, depends upon American pressure both to start or to stop the business if the Palestinians backslide or others, including Israel, fail to deliver. U.S. approval or lack thereof is thus key to the scheme. It cannot be assumed, of course, that the American standard of performance will be accepted by everyone or even that Washington will have the stamina to stay the course. Yet, the parties do not have much choice except to try Bush’s ideas unless they prefer a violent occupation that carries the risk of a broader war.

To sum up: the next six months will tell whether Bush’s Palestine has a chance. The “international mandate for Palestine” is workable if the parties want it; the best argument for this is the severity of the status quo. Large steps toward a peaceful if not wholly democratic or efficient Palestinian state can be taken despite Arafat’s objections so long as the U.S. and its allies in this matter are steadfast in their purposes.