Fiddling while the Middle East burns

Bush's one-sided speech is just the latest chapter in a long history of U.S. ignorance, ill will and condescension toward the Palestinians -- and it's not going to help Israel, either.

By Gary Kamiya
Published June 25, 2002 11:56PM (EDT)

George Bush added another chapter to the long history of American ignorance, ill will and condescension toward the Palestinians in his statement about the Mideast crisis on Monday. His plan -- demanding that the Palestinians change their leadership and offering them a provisional state if they do, asking the Israelis to pull out of the occupied territories and stop building settlements -- allows him to say that he is engaged in trying to solve the most dangerous crisis in the world, and it shores up GOP support with two vital constituencies, Jews and right-wing Christians. But it is impossible to believe that anyone knowledgeable in the Bush administration believes that it will bring an end to the vicious ongoing semi-war between Israel and the Palestinians. By embracing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's position that the whole problem is Arafat, -- while making vague, pleasant-sounding noises about a Palestinian state -- Bush paid obeisance to American political realities, and if the votes he gains have to be paid for in Israeli and Palestinian lives, so be it.

It would be lovely if Bush's fairy tale came true. It would be lovely if the Palestinians denounced suicide bombings and embraced other forms of nonviolent resistance, as Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said recently called for them to do. But national liberation struggles rarely play by Marquess of Queensbury rules. The weird schizophrenia of the Bush administration's position is that it implicitly recognizes that the Palestinians have a just cause -- why else would Bush call for a Palestinian state and use the word "occupation" to describe the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza? -- but denounces the fact that it uses violence to realize that cause. This is the language of the pulpit, not the real world. Yes, suicide bombings against civilians are abhorrent. War itself -- which in the 20th century generally involves the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians -- is abhorrent. But it is not customary for world powers to lecture militant movements about their tactics or leadership while implicitly endorsing their goals: Such lectures are nothing more than moral grandstanding. Attacking Arafat may be a good political move for Bush, but it takes less courage than just about any political posture you can name.

And it will almost certainly have no effect. Forget the fact that it is far from clear that Arafat, and the Palestinian leadership in general, supports the current wave of terror attacks or has the power to stop them. The Bush administration presumably knows that the Palestinians are not going to suddenly elect to throw out the corrupt leadership of the Palestinian Authority and replace it with a bunch of hitherto nonexistent Martin Luther Arafats just because the American president -- whose words and actions have shown him to be a one-note moralist who is ignorant of the issues -- told them to. Even if a full-fledged Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza were the reward, with Israel's borders defined by the consensus international interpretation of U.N. Resolution 242 (i.e., the June 4, 1967, borders, plus or minus a few adjustments), Bush's patronizing demand that the Palestinians carry on their struggle within parameters set by the U.S. would be doomed. And Bush is not even offering that much of a political horizon: His Palestinian entity is so conditional and ill-defined that from the Palestinian perspective, it actually represents a step back from the state envisioned at Camp David and Taba.

Indeed, Bush's heavy-handed demands may actually backfire. For Palestinians who were ready to vote against Arafat, Bush's Israel-centric speech may only cause them to dig in their heels. The Middle East works by concrete, sometimes brutal quid pro quos, not lofty moral epiphanies: When Palestinians see that the U.S. president is prepared to spend some political capital to put pressure on Israel, they will believe that the U.S. is indeed an honest broker and will keep its word -- and then they will be prepared to make painful changes, including bidding farewell to a legendary but thoroughly discredited leader. But why should they make this sacrifice -- which in the shame-based culture of the Arab world amounts to knuckling under to a humiliating demand from a big bully -- without getting anything in return except vague promises to start negotiations at square one with an Israeli leader who has always regarded Palestinians as the enemy?

Make no mistake: The Palestinian people are sick of Arafat and his cronies, whose power-hungry ways, inept administration and failure to achieve Palestinian goals have eroded the respect they once earned for fighting for the Palestinian cause during the long decades when neither Israel nor the United States was willing or able to even recognize that the Palestinians existed. And many of them are also sick of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, which beyond their moral repulsiveness have played into Sharon's hands and given the timorous Bush a convenient excuse not to challenge any of "the Bulldozer's" retaliatory actions, no matter how savage. The Palestinians would be better off with different leadership. (So would the Israelis, for that matter.) But the Palestinian struggle is larger and deeper than the abhorrent tactics some of its zealots have embraced. If the president of the United States recognized that, in addition to calling for an end to terrorism, his words might have the moral resonance to reach the Palestinians. As it is, they'll recognize them as P.R.

In any case, even if Arafat were to be replaced, the underlying issues would remain the same. Does Bush really expect Sharon's dream to come true and for a new Palestinian leader to initiate a civil war against his own people, while final status issues remain unresolved? The latter issue is particularly absurd: It is far too late in the game to expect the parties to go back to square one and begin dickering over interim arrangements, as Bush called for them to do.

Perhaps the most egregious example of Bush's bias against the Palestinians and for the Israelis came in that part of the speech when, in the interests of appearing "fair," he rapped Israel's knuckles. Bush criticized the 35-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza -- but he criticized it not for its effect on the Palestinians, but on the Israelis. "Israel also has a large stake in the success of a democratic Palestine," he said. "Permanent occupation threatens Israel's identity and democracy." This American solicitude for the pain that illegal occupation of another people's land is causing the occupiers, combined with a discreet silence about its effect on those occupied, can only be surprising to those not familiar with America's long and shameful role in the conflict.

Bush did attempt to acknowledge Palestinian grievances, but he did so in a cramped, intentionally vague and historically myopic way that avoided placing any of the blame for the Palestinian plight on the Israelis -- or the Americans, who bear a painful responsibility for their plight. "For decades you've been treated as pawns in the Middle East conflict," he said. "Your interests have been held hostage to a comprehensive peace agreement that never seems to come, as your lives get worse year by year." Pawns? I wonder who could have treated the Palestinians as pawns? Surely not the Americans, who after 1948 refused (along with the rest of the world) to see them as anything other than "refugees" (it was too disturbing to think about how they became refugees, or where they were from); then caved in to the Israeli position that they didn't really exist; and then, when that became untenable, that their leadership, the PLO, didn't really represent them (sound familiar?) and finally that if the PLO did represent them, it was a terrorist organization.

The reasons the Americans have always treated the Palestinians as pawns is the same reason many Israelis denied they even existed: Their very existence poses an existential challenge to the state of Israel. (This does not mean that a Palestinian state means the end of Israel, only that understanding Palestinian grievances requires that Israelis -- and Americans -- take an honest look at how the Jewish state came into being.) Such a challenge was far harder for Israel or its patron the United States to understand or deal with than that posed, for example, by Egypt. Bush and many Israelis like to point to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel as an example of "courageous peacemaking," not mentioning that that agreement completely ignored the Palestinians. This was no accident: For everyone concerned, the Palestinians have been an unpleasant reality that they have tried to shove under the rug.

Bush's call for new Palestinian leadership is just another carpet job: an unrealistic, moralizing, time-buying tactic that allows him to avoid confronting Sharon. Not surprisingly, the Israeli press -- much savvier about what U.S. presidential speeches mean than the often-naive American press -- saw the speech as a home run for Sharon. "The president's speech is a huge triumph for Ariel Sharon," wrote David Landau in Ha'aretz. "At the end of last year, the Israeli prime minister seemed either naive or perverse, or both, when he pledged to render Arafat 'irrelevant.' Now, he can cogently contend, he has won his case convincingly before what for Israel is the highest court of world opinion: the U.S. government."

Siding with Sharon would be fine, if the old general with the bloody hands had a vision beyond demonizing his old adversary and destroying Palestinian civil society until his enemies cry uncle. But he does not. And congenial as it no doubt feels for Bush to embrace Sharon, who by all reports he feels close to, it is not a posture that is in the end going to do anyone any good -- not Palestinians, not Americans and not Israelis.

If Bush were really interested in bringing peace to the region, he would show the same courage he is demanding of the Israelis and Palestinians. He would announce the final status outcome in advance -- basically some version of the proposals made at Camp David and Taba, which Arafat has just announced he would accept: borders defined by the international consensus interpretation of U.N. 242, dismantling of almost all settlements, no Palestinian right of return to pre-'67 Israel, and Palestinian control of East Jerusalem and the Old City, with provision for Israeli access to the Jewish holy sites. Security would be provided by the U.S. or by some other neutral force, which would root out Palestinian militants.

Everyone knows that this is the only solution that holds out any hope of bringing a peaceful end to the conflict -- and everyone knows that the longer the killing goes on, the more a battle over land becomes a Tutsi-and-Hutu-like battle between factions whose hatred is primordial and implacable. The United States is the only nation that has the power to step in and make peace a possibility. The present moment is bleak, but it holds out opportunities. The Arab states are prepared to move forward, as the Saudi peace plan makes clear; so, given the right security arrangements, are the Israelis. But instead of seizing the moment, Bush stalled, moralized and pointed fingers at one side. The only reason for hope is that he is so confused and his administration is in such disarray on the Middle East that when the crisis deepens, as tragically it is likely to, a different policy may emerge.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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