The President's New Initiative
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 25, 2007
It's too bad that President Bush was not able to attend a recent conference sponsored by the Shalem Center on the aftermath of Hamas's takeover of Gaza . Had he been there he would have heard Palestinian human activist Bassam Eid declare, "There is no Palestinian today who demands a state. We want health, education, and a chance to work." Eid went on to say that there is not one Palestinian leader today who can be counted on to keep his word in any matter or who is capable of imposing any order on Palestinian society, The last thing that Israel or the United States should be contemplating, he said, is giving Mahmoud Abbas more arms. "We [the Palestinians] are a nation that does not deserve a state," Eid concluded.
A Palestinian state has never seemed further away than it does in the wake of Hamas's seizure of power in Gaza, leading to a complete separation between the West Bank and Gaza. Abbas proved himself totally hapless in the wake of the Hamas onslaught in the Gaza. Even if Abbass's intentions were as pure as the driven snow, Eid is surely right, that he has proven himself totally ineffectual and incapable of making good on any commitment he might make.
Abbas's newly appointed prime minister Salaam Fayad says the right things: he calls for governmental transparency and the end of endemic corruption: advocates large-scale building projects that could house many of those still living in refugee camps after 60 years where they have remained a bottomless pool of hatred for Israel and a breeding ground for terrorists (though Fayad does not explicitly declare any such purpose); and urges the centralization in the government of the means of force, though he has also declared that he will not resort to force to achieve that goal. .
But as Evelyn Gordon pointed out in the Jerusalem Post last week, even if these goals could once have been achieved, a lot of water has passed under the dam since the first Oslo Accords, and the experience since then has made their achievement far more difficult today than at the outset of the Oslo process.
Then Israel was eager to help in the Palestinians economic development. But the escalating terrorism under Oslo, eventually shut-off the Israel to both Palestinian workers and products. And the checkpoints and other security measures that Israel has been forced to impose in the West Bank make economic development that much more difficult.
Yasir Arafat might have had the authority, if he had wished to use it, of creating a single security apparatus, but he preferred for his own reasons to proliferate the number of militias, each one on his payroll. Similarly, he preferred skimming off most of the unprecedented international aid lavished on the Palestinians for arming his various militias – approximately 60% of the Palestinian Authority budget under Arafat went to the various security forces --and to padding his bank accounts to investing in Palestinian infrastructure. As a consequence, trust in Fatah is near zero. Nor is there reason to believe that the Arafat cronies who joined him at the feeding trough will willingly give up their perks, even if Fayad were serious about transparency.
At the same conference at which Eid renounced any aspirations for a Palestinian state in the near future, Gen. Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council under Ariel Sharon, listed four reasons why there will be no two-state solution under the current model of dividing up the territory west of the Jordan between Israel and Palestine: (1) Hamas is strong enough to torpedo any settlement; (2) The gap between what Israel will offer and what the Palestinians will accept has only widened; (3) The Palestinians will not do anything to stop terrorism until Israel has agreed to their political demands; Israel will not negotiate final status issues until the Palestinians undertake serious efforts to curb terrorism and end incitement against Israel; and (4) Any Palestinian state will be inherently unstable (with the current population of the Gaza Strip projected to double by 2020). .
MY GUESS IS THAT PRESIDENT BUSH KNOWS that there will be no Palestinian state any time in the near future. The Palestinians have convincingly demonstrated to the world that they are very far indeed from being able to run a state of their own.
Nevertheless, the President chose to reprise last week his Rose Garden speech of June 22 2002, in which he first declared his support for a Palestinian state. And in last week's address, he expressed his hope that "we can soon begin serious negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state." The President announced his intention to convene an international conference to "review the progress that has been made toward building Palestinian institutions [and} to look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform."
Like the two leaders he seeks to bring together – Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas – Bush knows that this is pure political theater. But each man has his own reasons for furthering the illusion of movement. Bush would like to distract attention from Iraq for awhile, and also to get those critics who blame a lack of American involvement for the stalled Palestinian-Israel peace process off his back. (In fact, it was the hyper-involvement of the Clinton administration in the Oslo years and the failure to hold Arafat to account that gave rise to the present impasse.)
For his part, Abbas is grateful for any increased international aid he can commandeer and for the international legitimacy that Bush confers upon him. Olmert knows that only the appearance of movement on the peace process can win the Israeli press to his side. He is caught, however, in a vise, since virtually any concession he offers to the Palestinians at this point will be deeply unpopular in Israel.
Not that Bush's speech lost all touch with reality. He did not claim that the time is ripe for final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The first item on his agenda, as Michael Oren pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, was not negotiations between Abbas and Olmert, but laying the foundations for Palestinian state-building. President Bush emphasized that the mandate of the newly appointed Quartet representative Tony Blair is to help the Palestinians build their institutions not to involve himself in peace negotiations. First, the Palestinians need to establish the rule of law and a sound financial system, move towards economic development, and dismantle the various militias.
In short, claimed Oren, the President clearly placed the onus on the Palestinians for showing a commitment to peace as a pre-condition for negotiations. They must demonstrate, the President said, a desire for a future of "decency and hope" and not a future of terror and death." In addition, the President reiterated the United States' commitment to Israel's existence as a Jewish homeland, an implicit rejection of the Palestinians' claimed "right" of return. The President also anticipated that the eventual border between any Palestinian state and Israel will have to take into account not just previous lines (i.e,, the 1949 Armistice Lines), but also "current realities," thus leaving the door open for Israel's retention of the major settlement blocs.
The Oren view of the speech is the one that the administration chose to emphasize: It sent thousands of copies of his WSJ op-ed to journalists, and at a press conference shortly after the speech, Press Secretary Tony Snow was at pains to stress that the international conference called for by the President was not "a big peace conference. . . . This is a meeting to sit down and try to find ways of building fundamental and crucial institutions for the Palestinians that are going to enable them to have self-government and democracy."
But even Oren has to admit that the President's message was not quite as "unequivocal" as one might have wished. And even if the President's intentions were exactly as stated by Oren, there are still dangers ahead in the President's call for an international conference. For one thing, the United States will not be the only party at such a conference, and other invitees will surely have agendas of their own. Those will likely include efforts to extract from Israel a whole slew of concessions and "confidence-building" measures. Even Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice cannot be counted on to hold unswervingly to the focus on Palestinian institutions. She has been trying to coax Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into final status negotiations for months.
In addition, the President's speech contained a fair amount of wishful thinking about the true desires of the Palestinian people. He described at length the savagery of Hamas in the recent fighting in Gaza. But throwing enemies to their deaths from rooftops was not a technique confined to the Hamas. Fatah engaged in plenty of savagery of its own, just less successfully. In short, the effort to contrast a brutal Hamas to an almost civilized Fatah fails.
Among the positive developments of the past five years, according to Bush, is that the PA is now headed by a President committed to peace. But the fact that Hamas continues to seek Israel's destruction, does not suddenly turn Fatah into Israel's friend, just because Fatah and Hamas are bitter rivals. Sometimes my enemy's enemy is also my enemy.
The evidence for Abbas's commitment to peace is scanty. He has consistently refused to take the slightest risk for peace. He has done nothing to stop Kassam fire at Sderot and beyond, or to stop the incitement on the official Palestinian TV and radio, or to disarm the militias, or to stop the flow of heavy armaments into Gaza across the Egyptian border or to foster economic development in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal.
Some of Bush's rhetoric was dangerously naïve, as, for instance, his call for Israel to reduce its "footprint [in the West Bank] without reducing its security." That's like calling for the squaring of the circle. The Israeli checkpoints and nightly patrols in Palestinian cities have resulted in a huge reduction in terrorist activities. Amazingly, however, Israel picked up on the hint. Last week, Prime Minister Olmert granted amnesty to over 200 highly sought after terrorists, in return for their pledge to forswear terrorist activity and give up their weapons (which they can quickly retain by joining the local security services.
Even if President Bush knows in his heart how far the Palestinians are from accepting Israel's existence – Palestinian polls consistently show majority support for non-recognition of Israel and ongoing attacks on Israeli civilians – the way these issues are discussed has a way of coming back to haunt. Stupid talk tends to generate stupid policies. (The British government's refusal to discuss the religion and religious beliefs of the terrorists who sought to detonate two car bombs outside of London clubs and attacked Glasgow Airport last month hardly gives one confidence that the government will prove capable of dealing with Britain's internal Islamic threat. It's hard to develop strategies for a problem one dare not name.
At the end of his Mideast speech, President Bush described a 16-year-old girl in Gaza who allegedly told a reporter that the Hamas executioners "want to destroy the culture of our fathers and grandfathers. We will not allow them to do it. I'm sayings it enough killing." This girl was meant to stand for all the non-Hamas Palestinians, as if clan-based Gaza society was some kind of peaceful paradise before Hamas came onto the scene, and as if the killings she regretted also included those of Israelis.
That, unfortunately, is a fantasy. And if President Bush believes it, then it is a dangerous fantasy.
Related Topics: Peace Process
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