Editorial: Bush's clarity

President must call on Arabs to lead by example if they believe in peace.

bush ranch 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush ranch 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
President George Bush has taken much flak for not pushing harder for Arab-Israeli peace. Measured by the number of meetings his predecessor devoted to this topic, Bush has certainly fallen behind. But history is not measured by the hour, but by moments when leaders have the courage to say the truth. On June 24, 2002, Bush made such history with a 17-minute speech. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," Bush said. "I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts." With these words, Bush placed the burden of peace in the Palestinian court. The operative word was "if." If the Palestinians were able to replace their leaders, end terrorism, and build democratic institutions, they would receive full US backing for their own independent state. Bush left no room for misunderstanding. "The world is prepared to help, yet ultimately these steps toward statehood depend on the Palestinian people and their leaders. If they energetically take the path of reform, the rewards can come quickly. If Palestinians embrace democracy, confront corruption and firmly reject terror, they can count on American support for the creation of a provisional state of Palestine." Bush's vision, then, was not just of two states, but of its dependence on Palestinians taking necessary steps to make it a reality. Israel, of course, would have to be ready to actively help create such a reality as well. But there was no serious doubt then, and there is even less now, that Israel is more than ready to do its part if the Palestinians decided to do theirs. Bush's vision has since been enshrined, albeit in diluted form, in the road map. Yasser Arafat has since died, and the Palestinians indeed have new, if bifurcated, leadership. Israel has more concretely than ever, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon and since, expressed its desire for a Palestinian state in words and actions, principally through the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of settlements there and in Samaria. Hamas has taken over Gaza, and Israel fought a war against Iran's proxy, Hizbullah, in Lebanon. Most significantly, Iran is poised, if the West does not act soon, to become a nuclear power. The question now is how Bush can, in the current context, carry his original vision forward. His speech today, before Israeli and Palestinian leaders and about 20 Arab foreign ministers at Annapolis, is a major opportunity to carry on where his June 2002 speech left off. In his last major statement on the issue on July 16, Bush said: "Arab nations should also take an active part in promoting peace negotiations. Relaunching the Arab League initiative was a welcome first step. Now Arab nations should build on this initiative - by ending the fiction that Israel does not exist, stopping the incitement of hatred in their official media, and sending cabinet-level visitors to Israel. With all these steps, today's Arab leaders can show themselves to be the equals of peacemakers like Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan." This ringing message to the Arab states was promptly ignored, as it was buried under the usual list of messages to Israelis and Palestinians. Yet this is the heart of the matter, the logical extension of Bush's vision, and goes directly to why it has not come to fruition. Even in 2002, it was clear based on the spectacular collapse and aftermath of the 2000 Camp David summit that the Palestinians could not lead toward peace while the Arab states lagged behind. Now the Palestinian leadership is considerably weaker and more divided then it was then, and is even greater need of real leadership from the Arab states. Some claim that pressing these states to normalize relations with Israel is folly, since radical Islamists will use this shift to undermine Arab regimes aligned with the US. But if Arab regimes are too weak to do this, then how can the Palestinians, who are even weaker, be expected to extricate themselves from their spiral of radicalization? President Bush should, as the centerpiece of his speech, call on the Arab governments gathered today in Annapolis to lead by example if they truly believe in peace. Conferences do not change history, but clarity from the leader of the free world can.