Shift the spotlight

Bush should build on his insight that the Palestinians were "treated as pawns" by Arab regimes.

arafat posters wall 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arafat posters wall 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The US-Israel strategic talks this week took place with two scheduled events in the background: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's White House visit on June 19, and a speech by President George W. Bush around June 24, the fifth anniversary of his landmark address calling for a new Palestinian leadership. Now as then, the time is ripe for a new way of looking at the Arab-Israeli conflict. In mid-2002, nine months after 9/11, the US had already toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, and was working to force Iraq's Saddam Hussein back into his UN-constructed straight jacket. At the same time, a Palestinian suicide bombing campaign raged against Israel. It was clear that Yasser Arafat, in addition to attacking Israel for his own reasons, was effectively part of a campaign to distract the US from confronting Iraq. The international community, including the US, was urging restraint on "both sides" and would not recognize that Israel was acting in self-defense (just weeks before, Bush himself had said, "Enough is enough," in response to Operation Defensive Shield.) For Arafat, attacking Israel was a win-win proposition: The more he escalated, the more pressure came down on Israel, and the harder it was for the US to assemble a coalition to confront his ally, Saddam Hussein. Bush's speech dramatically changed all this, making it one of the most important speeches of his presidency. It was effective because, instead turning up the heat on Israel, as was widely expected and as European leaders were pressing him to do, Bush placed the spotlight squarely on Arafat. "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born," he said. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror... The United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure." With this, Bush overturned decades of US policy by shifting the burden for the lack of a Palestinian state from Israel to the Palestinians themselves. The Palestinians, by creating a peaceful democracy, could take control of their own destiny. In doing this, Bush was not jettisoning Palestinian interests, but actually affirming them. As he put it: "I can understand the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people. For decades you've been treated as pawns in the Middle East conflict. Your interests have been held hostage... An end to occupation and a peaceful democratic Palestinian state may seem distant, but America and our partners throughout the world stand ready to help you make them possible as soon as possible." Now, all of this seems bitterly ironic. The "new leaders" Palestinians chose turned out to be Hamas, and Palestinians are further than ever from fulfilling Bush's vision. Bush's democracy agenda seems to have faltered, with Palestinians being held up as a prime cautionary tale. This interpretation of events is understandable, but ultimately misleading. Bush was right about Arafat, something that even Europe came to recognize, and he was right that Israel was no longer the fundamental address for those looking for the obstacle to Palestinian statehood. Yet things went wrong because his vision was incomplete. Bush has the chance to correct this now. In his speech this month, Bush should build on his insight that the Palestinians were "treated as pawns" in the conflict. This is an obvious reference to the Arab states, which have used the conflict to distract from their own stagnant regimes. Five years on, Bush should say that it is no longer the lack of a Palestinian state that is perpetuating the conflict, but the conflict - in the form of the Islamist refusal to accept Israel - that is blocking a Palestinian state. The weak and radicalized Palestinians cannot change this on their own; they need the Arab states to lead the way by taking concrete steps to make peace, which means accepting Israel. Though the Palestinians must still be held responsible for their own destiny, the spotlight that Bush rightly trained on them should now be shifted to the Arab states.