U.S. President George W. Bush has finally laid out his vision of Middle East peace, and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat does not seem to have a place in it. That is one of the few details in Mr. Bush’s speech, which is long on “vision” and short on specifics. The call for a new Palestinian leadership is a divisive move and may help cement faltering support for the embattled president of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Bush’s plan can succeed, but only if the U.S. takes an active role in the peace process and shows the world that his proposal is not just another way for the U.S. to distance itself from the Middle East conflict by imposing impossible conditions on the Palestinian people.
Mr. Bush’s statement was anticipated. It had become clear that the administration’s reluctance to get involved in the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians jeopardized other foreign policy goals — namely, marshaling world support for the war on terror. Yet the U.S. reportedly has evidence that shows participation in terrorist activities by the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Bush could not endorse the Palestinian leadership as a credible partner for peace while saying there could be no compromises in the war on terror.
Those two seemingly incompatible objectives form the heart of the proposal Mr. Bush made earlier this week. The Palestinians would be offered an “interim” state when they elected leaders “not compromised by terror” — in other words, when they dump Mr. Arafat.
On the one hand, the offer holds out to the Palestinians the realization of their long-cherished dream: their own state. It lays out conditions and puts the burden of action on the Palestinians. On the other, it is a breathtaking assertion of arrogance to claim that the Palestinian leadership, democratically elected, will not suffice. Which democratic process is Mr. Bush willing to honor?
International reaction to the speech has been mixed. U.S. willingness to recognize a Palestinian state is applauded. The call for Palestinians to disavow their longtime leader is harder to swallow. To reconcile the two, most governments have focused on what they like in the proposal and ignore what they did not.
Mr. Arafat’s response has been typical. He welcomed the offer while denying that the comments were aimed at him. Then, he called the U.S. bluff. He officially declared that elections for the president of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Legislative Council would be held in January 2003 and that he would be a candidate. Polls show that he would win such a vote — if only to show the world that the Palestinian people will not be told who to vote for. His re-election would be the worst possible option for Mr. Bush. Comments by officials that American aid to Palestine be cut if Mr. Arafat is re-elected bring the White House position perilously close to bullying.
Fortunately for the U.S. president, Mr. Arafat’s credibility is dwindling even among Arab governments. While they continue to offer him rhetorical support, they concede that he has been a poor leader, incapable of administering the Palestinian Authority. Corruption and inefficiency have compounded Palestinian woes and fed the extremist groups that wage war against Israel and the Palestinian government. They fear that extremism, terror and war could spill over into their own countries. But those same governments also know that attempts by outside powers to overthrow Mr. Arafat will only shore up his faltering support.
Much depends on giving the Palestinian people a real choice, and that brings Israel into the equation. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has maintained that it cannot do business with Mr. Arafat. It considers him a terrorist, either an active participant in the war against Israel or unwilling to stop the extremists. Mr. Sharon ignores the fact that his military has done much to ensure that Mr. Arafat cannot stop the terrorists even if he wanted to.
Nor has Israel shown a willingness to engage any Palestinian leader. (Of course, any endorsement of a moderate would probably taint that individual.) Instead, Mr. Sharon’s government takes actions that look like efforts to subvert a real Palestinian state. The recent decision to send troops in to hold Palestinian cities is such a move and must be reversed. Clearly, it is impossible for Palestinians to hold meaningful elections when Israel is occupying its territory.
The U.S. must get Israel to pull out. The failure to do so makes Mr. Bush out to be a hypocrite: dangling statehood ahead of the Palestinians and then denying them the means to achieve it. The broad objectives of the Bush plan are admirable. The specifics are lacking. The failure to fill in the blanks — and make concrete efforts to see them realized — will confirm suspicions that the U.S. is not interested in a real solution to the Palestinian problem. That guarantees that the suspicions will not go away, with or without Mr. Arafat.
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