"Clear moral vision" or "sugar-coated palliative"?

Foxman, Ibish, Lerner, Horowitz and others square off over President Bush's peace plan.

Published June 25, 2002 11:41PM (EDT)

President Bush finally outlined his plans for Middle East peace Monday, highlighted by calls for Palestinians to replace Yasser Arafat as their leader through elections that will help them become a "practicing democracy" and earn U.S. support for "a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East."

Bush spoke of an optimistic trajectory that would have Palestinians holding elections by the end of this year and suggested that an independent statehood could be just three years away. "The United States, along with the European Union and Arab states, will work with Palestinian leaders to create a new constitutional framework and a working democracy for the Palestinian people," he said. "And the United States, along with others in the international community, will help the Palestinians organize and monitor fair, multi-party local elections by the end of the year, with national elections to follow."

To make that possible, he called on Israel to cease further development in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and to withdraw to positions in those territories that it held before Sept. 28, 2000 (the day that Ariel Sharon went to Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount, which sparked the current intifada). He also promised that the United States, World Bank and European Union would help the Palestinians' fledgling economy with appropriate oversight, and that the U.S. and other allies would "increase our humanitarian assistance to relieve Palestinian suffering."

Bush is the first U.S. president ever to voice support for an independent Palestinian state; at the same time he has never wavered from voicing his support for a strong and secure Israel -- which has made him a target from partisans on both sides. That didn't change Monday, as informed observers characterized his speech to Salon as both "terrific" with a " clear moral vision," and "one-sided" and a "sugar-coated palliative."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League:

There are a couple of new things in Bush's speech. Specifically, whatever will happen in the region's future will only happen with a new and different Palestinian leadership, one that is not tarnished by terrorism. Bush made a commitment to the future, that if in fact the Palestinians turn the corner and reject terrorism and violence, then America will be very active in helping bring to fruition the vision of two states, and that America will help make the Palestinian state viable and will help to prod Israel to do whatever it can to make that a viable state.

To all the skeptics who keep on saying that the president has no understanding of the Middle East, that he's wishy-washy, what we heard today was a clear moral vision and a clear statement on his war against terrorism. The war against terrorism applies everywhere, including the Middle East. He made it very clear there are no exceptions. I believe that the American Jewish community will overwhelmingly welcome the president's vision, and I also believe that the overwhelming majority of Israelis will welcome it.

Palestinians who want reconciliation, who want a future, now know from the United States' point of view what they need to do. They need to find a different leadership, one that is not tainted by terrorism. America can help prod them towards democracy, can encourage them and talk about the consequences if it doesn't happen. We can condition the amount of support we give based on how much we see democracy moving. We've done so in Afghanistan, in Bosnia and in other counties. You want our help and support, you want our backing politically and economically, show us that you're on the way towards democracy.

Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee:

The first thing is that there's no such thing as provisional statehood. Either you're sovereign and independent or you're not sovereign and independent. It's like being provisionally pregnant.

It's even more unrealistic to talk about creating a democracy among non-citizens of a non-state under foreign military occupation without sovereignty. Americans are heirs to a great tradition of insights about the minimum requirements for independent self-government, and these traditions are betrayed by facile remarks about democracy without citizenship.

As far as Bush wanting to replace Arafat: Well, that's nice for him. I think one can easily imagine better leadership than Yasser Arafat, but it's not up to me, and it's not up to [Bush]. It's up to the Palestinians. I think Israelis couldn't possibly have a worse prime minister than Ariel Sharon, but I don't think there would be any point in President Bush or the leader of some Arab state or anybody going in front of the TV and lecturing Israelis on the need to replace Sharon with a more reasonable human being.

He's talking about democracy without statehood. These are 3.7 million people who are not citizens of anything, so what sort of democracy are we talking about? Is this a student council? A high school government? Or is this a free people with self-government in a sovereign republic? What are we talking about here? There are some serious problems.

Beyond the Rube Goldberg quality of democracy without citizenship, you've also got the problem of how to conduct a proper election under the current conditions in the West Bank, where you can't even move from one village without written permission of an Israeli soldier. There is no freedom of speech, freedom of movement. Any of the kinds of things that could make an election meaningful in practice, the logistics are almost unthinkable. One can only talk like that if you have no idea what daily life is like for Palestinians. Buying a dozen eggs is an adventure, and a dangerous one at that. How are you supposed to go campaigning up and down the countryside?

Finally, you have to ask yourself, how democratic is this election going to be when the person who all polls suggest is the most popular person among the Palestinians and who won the last election among the Palestinians is apparently not going to be allowed to run by the leader of another country? That is a new definition of democracy. I have no illusions about the myriad failings of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, but this is not realistic.

I was surprised by the speech. What I had gathered about it is that it would be a set of unrealistic set of proposals, but I'm surprised by how unrealistic they are and by how one-sided the speech is. It puts a fantastic amount of onus on the Palestinian people, asking them to meet a standard under occupation that probably cannot be met by anybody. It's asking them to lead a perfectly normal life under the most abnormal conditions possible. That's really what the president is asking.

Meanwhile, what are the requirements on Israel? Nothing, as far as I can tell. There's a vague vision that occupation should end, a vague statement about settlement activity, but nothing precise. Not a word about what Israel has to do. My conclusion from this is that the president is still basing his Middle East policy more on domestic political considerations regarding the power of the pro-Israel lobby than on the natural interests of the United States, which would naturally lead us to pressure both sides to come to the table and start talking.

Talking is better than shooting people down in the streets. It's better than blowing yourself up in a bus. At least he's presenting ideas. They're not very good ideas, but maybe we can use this as a basis for some progress in the future. We have to have some faith in that. But he has to deal with Arafat as long as Arafat is the Palestinian leader. Arafat is the Palestinian leader, and just saying he isn't won't make it so.

Yossi Klein Halevi, author of "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land":

It was a terrific speech. It's a break from the sterile rhetoric of the cycle of violence. [It represented] an understanding that the only way peace has ever been achieved in the Middle East, whether in Egypt or Jordan, was when the Arab side succeeded in convincing the Israeli public that the Arabs accepted the right of Israel to exist. Peace [requires] Arab proof that terrorism and the destruction of Israel aren't the goals of the Arab world.

Let's take the only successful peace treaty in the Middle East so far, the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, as a model. That worked because the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat spoke directly to the Israeli people from the podium of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem and announced that Egypt welcomed Israel into the Middle East. The moment Sadat said those magic words, the Israeli public decided to return to its 1967 border with Egypt and uproot all the settlements. If we want to reach a similar result on other fronts, we need Arab leaders who can reassure the Israeli public that territorial withdrawal isn't a trick to weaken us, but the precondition for real acceptance of Israel into the region.

What Bush does is place the onus for breaking the deadlock exactly where it belongs, on the Arab world in general and on Palestinians in particular. The beauty of Bush's speech is that he has finally acknowledged the wisdom of Sharon's approach, which is that any territorial concessions to Arafat while he's actively encouraging terrorism will be a victory for terrorism around the world.

There are a few downsides. First, is it realistic to assume that the only people in the Arab world that are going to adopt democracy are the Palestinians? Palestinians at this point might very well be the last people to adopt democracy.

Besides, let's assume that democracy was to come tomorrow to Gaza. Who would they vote for? By placing the emphasis on democracy, Bush is revealing a limited Western way of looking the world. We need to start seriously working on helping those Muslim moderates who are under siege today to have the courage to speak out and save the honor of Islam. That, rather than democracy, is the real issue.

Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine:

I don't think that there's any particularly new element here. There is a de facto alliance between the Islamic fundamentalists and Ariel Sharon. They're both opposed to a secular Palestinian state: Sharon because he wants Israel to reoccupy the West Bank and maintain all the settlements. He's even said the settlements in Gaza are as sacred as Tel Aviv.

The fundamentalists don't want a Palestinian state to arise under secular leadership. They want a religious state under their leadership. The mechanism to maintain this status quo is for Sharon to demand that no negotiations can take place until there's an end to Palestinian terror. Then the fundamentalists make an act of terror, often at the moment when the Palestinian Authority is trying to make a move toward peace. Instead of Sharon striking back at the fundamentalists, he strikes back at the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, making more people think the fundamentalists must be right.

This is the cycle. The only way to break that cycle is to stop rewarding the terrorists. Sharon is rewarding the terrorists. Sharon, in effect, is saying any single person who doesn't want to see a Palestinian state can take an act of terror and destroy the process. This would be as if the U.S. government had said to African-Americans in the 1960s, "We will give you civil rights as long as there's an end to all black crime in the United States. There has to be an entire year with no murders of white people by black people." It's never going to happen.

There's no way you can dictate those terms to a force that wants to undermine a peace between Israelis and Palestinians. You have two forces that want to undermine any move toward peace.

I certainly hope this means the end of Arafat. He's a terrible leader and a terrible human being. He and Sharon should both be brought up for war crimes. I definitely agree with the president that it would be great to have Arafat out of there, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

The only way things will change is for the United States to take a totally different tack -- tell the Palestinians this is what we want, and to get it, we demand Israel end the occupation, freeze all settlements and withdraw all troops from the West Bank and Gaza. And the United States will support a multinational force to protect Israel. Israel has to take the first step.

The only thing secular Palestinians can do that would make a difference would be to adopt a nonviolent movement. That's the only way they're going to make a significant impact on the consciousness of Israel -- to follow the example of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

Clovis Maksoud, Arab League ambassador to the United Nations from 1980 to 1990; professor of international relations and director of the Center for the Global South at American University:

It was to a large extent a sugar-coated palliative to the Palestinians, [designed] to crush their collective memory of national struggle.

President Bush is asking for reforms in the Palestinian Authority. That's a shared view [of the Palestinian people], but not at the expense of undermining the legitimacy of Mr. Arafat, which Bush seems to be doing by making change of leadership a condition for America's support for a state of Palestine. He should have left it to the people [to choose their leader]. He wasn't sensitive to the national memory of the Palestinians who consider Arafat, despite his institutional flaws, to be the national leader, the national symbol of the Palestinians, the same way Nelson Mandela was the national symbol of the South African movement. The ANC did have certain attributes of corruption and terrorism and was denounced as such, but that did not undermine the legitimacy of Mandela or the ANC.

[Bush's speech] will be considered to be a call for internal rebellion and civil war among the Palestinians in order to facilitate what is perceived as the security of Israel. This is a nonstarter. Any kind of resonance the speech might have had with Palestinians is an illusion. The people -- their national dignity and national independence -- rely on the concept of being respected, not being patronized as the speech tended to do.

David Horowitz, Salon columnist:

Of all the statements he could have made that included the words "Palestinian state," this is the best. The president sees the problem as it is: There is a Palestinian leadership in place which is totalitarian and terrorist and is -- along with the undemocratic, oppressive Arab states -- the source of the problem in the Middle East.

The issue has never been about land, particularly not the West Bank. The Palestinians were given the West Bank in 1947, and the Arab states rejected it for them. The conflict in the Middle East is not about a state for the Palestinians, because that's what the Oslo peace process was about. The Israelis agreed that Palestinians would have a state and land in exchange for peace. The reality that many people are unwilling to grasp is that the Palestinian Authority is a terrorist authority that wants to drive to Jews into the sea. This has been the consistent view of the Arabs since 1948 and the PLO since 1964, when it was formed.

The Bush proposal speaks directly to this issue. The present Palestinian Authority must be dismantled. In its place, there has to emerge an authority that resonates [with] the Palestinian population; that believes in coexistence, permanent and perpetual, with a Jewish state in the Middle East; that believes in democracy; and that is willing to spend money on the development of the West Bank, and not just consider the state an instrument for lining its own pockets.

The Arafat thieves have to be thrown out, and a whole new regime and approach has to be manifest before progress toward a state can be made. He and his thugs have systematically assassinated every Palestinian who spoke out for peace, and intimidated the others. I have never doubted that there were, and would be, voices of reason and reasonableness in the Palestinian community if the proper environment were created. I have often deplored the absence of a Palestinian organization like Peace Now that empathizes with the plight of Israeli victims.

I think the speech by itself will do nothing, but what's conveyed to me is a resolve to recognize the evil forces in the Middle East -- Arafat, the PLO, Hamas and the other terrorist organizations, for what they are. If there is action, if there really is a stick with the carrot, I am actually very encouraged.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations:

I think it was very positive, primarily to the Palestinian people. This speech was very pro-Palestinian people. The president said he'll stand by them if they pursue peace. He laid out a reward to the end of terrorism, not a reward to continue terrorism.

I think this is an advance of U.S. policy. Perhaps the failure of the past negotiations was they didn't get to these fundamentals. What the president is doing is addressing issues which are really at the core. The Arab states have to make choices, Israel will have to respond, and ultimately negotiations will resume. To the Palestinian people, he's saying, Take control of your lives; chose leaders that are not corrupt and that do not support terrorism.

A lot of what happens next depends on how the Europeans and the Russians respond. I was hesitant about the wisdom of giving the speech now, right after another terrorist attack, but I think the timing was important. The president has an opportunity now to pursue it with the G8 leaders when they meet in Canada.

The president isn't saying who the Palestinian leader should be. He's saying, You have to have leadership that is not involved in terrorism, who will make a change in your lives, who is going to be willing to embrace a democratic system. Arafat will never be willing to have democracy. It goes against his principles, it goes against his nature, it goes against his history. The president is saying to them, If you want a realistic future, this is what you have to do -- have real elections with multiple candidates and pick your leadership. They've never been given a choice before.

I think the speech was well-crafted and gave everybody something. There's nobody who can come away from it and say he didn't empathize with them.

Marcia Freedman, member of the Knesset from 1973 to 1977 and spokesperson for the American Jewish anti-occupation group Brit Tzedek Z'Shalom:

What Bush has done is given Sharon almost everything he wanted. Why that was done, from the point of view of American foreign policy and American self-interest, is beyond me, frankly. Other than the sop of calling on Israel to pull back to the Sept. 28, 2000, position and halting settlements as well as releasing the more than $1 billion in foreign tax revenues Israel is holding, he's given Sharon everything he has wanted, and has been angling for, for the past year.

He does not call for the establishment of a state. He only conditionally calls for the establishment of a provisional state, whatever that is. He's agreeing with Sharon's demand that he won't negotiate with Arafat.

From the point of view of an organization like Brit Tzedek Z'Shalom that's calling for an organized solution based on 1967 borders, the only positive thing in this speech is the fact that he explicitly mentions the willingness of United States, the European Union and Arab states to work together to reestablish the Palestinian government both politically and economically. Clearly, it's absolutely critical right now to rebuild the Palestinians' political and economic institutions, which have been systematically destroyed over the past three months.

[Other than that,] the Bush plan is counterproductive. He can call on the Israeli government to pull back to the Sept. 28, 2000, line, but it won't happen. So how can the Palestinians possibly have new elections when nobody can travel from one city to another? The entire political infrastructure has been destroyed. How are people who are living under almost total curfew on a daily basis supposed to hold an election?

Bush is also calling for a halt to settlements. That's not going to happen either. President Bush has been calling for a halt to settlements since he took office, as did his father. Over the past year, 65 new settlements have been established.

There was no recognition in the speech that the Israeli army has Palestinians confined to eight cantons, and that its army is reassuming the occupation by reestablishing permanent bases within Palestinian population centers. If one can say the aim of the current Israeli government is to set the clock back to before the Oslo negotiations, they've succeeded, and the Bush administration, both with this speech and with its entire non-policy, has sanctioned it.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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