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Bush Peace Plan?
Presidential Introductions

25 June   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

After eighteen long months of tantalising inertia, interspersed with sporadic initiatives that were almost stillborn anyway, US President George W Bush unveiled last Monday his long-awaited strategy for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The build-up toward this first major policy statement by the incumbent US Administration had been dramatic. In fact, no less dramatic perhaps than the moments preceding the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when the British government promised a down-trodden Jewish people an internationally-recognised national home under British stewardship. This visionary speech was meant to build upon previous presidential declarations and set out a detailed roadmap and timetable for a Palestinian state within the context of a two-state solution.

When President Bush finally spoke, he called for the establishment of a ‘provisional’ Palestinian state, and for negotiations on a final settlement to be concluded within three years. However, the key condition he inserted - and the central point that will be remembered after everything else is forgotten - was a call for ‘a new and different Palestinian leadership’. Could it be that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was given at long last the green light to eviscerate Chairman Yasser Arafat from the Palestinian territories and end once and for all the Palestinian Authority?

Presidential Highlights

I believe that the plan unfurled by President Bush held some positive and encouraging notes to it. In its concluding paragraphs, for example, it referred to the need for an Israeli full withdrawal from positions held prior to 28 September2000 , and a stop to all Israeli settlement building consistent with the Mitchell Committee Report. It also called upon Israel and the Palestinians to ‘address the core issues that divide them’ adding that ‘the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on UN Resolutions 242 and338 , with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognised borders’. The speech further emphasised that the parties should also ‘resolve questions concerning Jerusalem [and] the plight and future of Palestinian refugees’.

President Bush concluded his speech by expressing understanding for ‘the deep anger and anguish of the Israeli people’ who have lived too long with fear and funerals and who have had ‘to avoid markets and public transportation, and forced to put armed guards in kindergarten classrooms’. Equally, he also expressed understanding for ‘the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people’. He said they have for decades been treated as pawns in the Middle East conflict and their interests ‘have been held hostage to a comprehensive peace agreement that never seems to come, as [their] lives get worse year by year’. The Palestinians, the President segued, ‘deserve a life of hope’ for their children.

Presidential Strokes

But is the plan workable? Does it hold the kernel of promising ideas, or does it erect roadblocks that will make diplomatic progress even harder? Will the words of President Bush allow for ‘liberty to blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza’? Will it ‘inspire millions of men and women around the globe who are equally weary of poverty and oppression’ to taste the fruits of an occupation-free, sovereign and viable state they may call their own?

I agree with many Palestinian and non-Palestinian analysts that a top to bottom reform of the Palestinian Authority is long overdue. The system is nepotistic and corrupt, and the high-profile Palestinian cabinet ministers and politicians seem to have done rather well out of the bloodshed visited upon their constituents let alone upon their Israeli neighbours. Whilst at least two-thirds of the Palestinian population is bereft of any economic subsistence and lives under harsh conditions, intelligence agencies estimate that the PLO holdings amount to $10 billion, yielding an annual income of $ 1million. Besides, it is alleged that many prominent Palestinians have raked in massive fortunes, and that the slush funds at their disposal amount to staggering sums that have contributed toward private real estate holdings.

However, I also believe that the unequivocal Bush demand for Arafat to exit from the political scene is fraught with many dangers - some of them quite imponderable too. Not only does this high-handed presidential exhortation smack of interference in the inner workings of another people or entity that elected its own leader, it also imports many dangers with it. It is true that many peoples - including57 % of Palestinians according to a recent poll - have come to consider Chairman Arafat a highly unsatisfactory Palestinian leader. Not only has he not managed to nudge forward in any tangible way the Palestinian national aspirations, he also has acquired a seasonal habit of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as consistently as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

However, three serious observations come up regarding the political fate that has been ‘pre-determined’ for Chairman Arafat by the neo-conservative hard-liners of the Bush Administration.

  • How would the US Administration deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if Arafat were re-elected in January 2003 and succeeded to renew his mandate? Would they just wash their hands off the whole conflict and exacerbate further the perils facing the whole region - including those appended to the future of friendly Arab countries?
  • For another, the Bush speech does not necessarily accelerate Arafat’s departure. Even if it were not to make Arafat more popular within his own constituency, it renders the position of any successor much more untenable by making him appear from the outset like an American stooge.
  • Worse still from an American - and broader - perspective, it could well generate a populist reaction that brings into power an ‘extremist’ leader from another less secular persuasion that could make a settlement even more remote.

Presidential Assumptions

The basic premise of promising Palestinians a ‘provisional’ state is a non-starter. This is an innovative and highly creative departure from any principle of International law or jurisprudence I am acquainted with, and leaves untackled all the fundamental issues relating to the conflict. What about the final borders of this future state let alone its capital and the question of its refugees and resources? It seems that this is a graduated process smacking of American fiat and Israeli diktat, and cannot seriously help push the negotiations forward or end the bloody chapter of violence.

In a presidential speech that focused on interim assumptions, what was sorely lacking was the clear articulation of an end game, alongside a road map that would lead to that end game. The speech should have delivered a political vision that would have encouraged the parties to comply with the interim requirements and build upon them with the realisation that those difficult steps would lead to the fulfilment of the dream of self-determination for the Palestinians.

The core issue of this whole drama as it has unfolded in the past twenty-one months is still left pending! It is quite timely for President Bush to refer to the global fight against terrorism and to decry the violence that has claimed so many Israeli and Palestinian lives. However, the USA and Israel still seem to misread the picture. They only look at the suicide bombers in abstract terms, never even bothering in their absolute certainty to explore further the reason why so many young men and women are willing to die for their cause. They prefer to condemn them as misguided and false idealists who have been brainwashed to become the instruments of their puppet-masters. They label them as wholesale terrorists, disregard their deaths as futile and denounce them as aberrant fanatics.

However, in another place and another circumstance, these Palestinians are admired for their self-sacrifice and selfless valour. They have been deprived for long years of land, water, medicine, education, free movement, self-government and the wherewithal to develop a self-sufficient economy with half their population driven into exile and the other half living in dire poverty. They are angry and resentful, resorting to acts of ghastly recklessness. Until the free world addresses the motivation behind their violence, I fear there can be no lasting political remedy. Until the USA allows itself to realise that the inconsistency of Palestinian violence with the fight against terrorism is because they were never given a fair deal for peace, the presidential assumptions remain vacuous. This is not moral equivalence or equivocation, but rather a sad and costly reality that has been borne out by history time and again - in Europe and elsewhere.

Presidential Conclusions

President Bush concluded his speech by referring to a ‘moment of opportunity and a test for all parties in the Middle East’. He expressed the hope that his speech would provide ‘an opportunity to lay the foundations for future peace, a test to show who is serious about peace and who is not’. I fear that short of a political vision giving impetus to his bare ideas, this hope might well prove to be another bloody and unfulfilled hiccup in the Middle East.

President Bush also reminded the parties of the biblical quotation, ‘I have set before you life and death; therefore, choose life’ (Deu30 :19). As I contemplate his speech and pray that it will help the parties in the conflict to choose peace, hope and life, I also recall another scriptural verse, ‘Thou shalt not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain’ (Is65 :25). Or could it be that my exegetical interpretation of the Holy Bible is discomfortingly less selective?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   25 June


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