The facts of life and death

How Bush deals with Rehnquist's illness at home and Arafat's illness abroad will reveal a lot about his second term.


Jonathan Freedland
November 10, 2004 8:50PM (UTC)

It is ghoulish, but two deaths -- one at home, the other abroad -- are about to reveal the true face of George W. Bush's second term. The first is the slow death played out in Paris. Yasser Arafat has lingered on the brink for so long, the president delivered a eulogy a full week ago, albeit by accident. At Bush's first post-election press conference, a reporter broke the premature news that the Palestinian leader had died. "My first reaction is, God bless his soul," said a grim-faced president, in the manner of a hanging judge sending a convicted man to the gallows: May the Lord have mercy upon your soul. About the man, he added not a word more.

So we know in advance the president's immediate reaction to Arafat's demise. The more important question is: What will Bush do next? Will Arafat's exit prompt him to change course, ending a four-year policy of aloofness toward the Middle East conflict, finally persuading the White House to engage?

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Tony Blair certainly hopes the answer is yes. He pointedly linked his congratulations to Bush last week with a demand that Washington at last focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- a move that, I'm told, did not go down too well in the White House. The P.M. will be pressing home the same case in Washington Wednesday, face to face.

The pessimists fear Bush will not be stirred. He showed an early aversion to Middle East peacemaking, which he believed had mired Bill Clinton's presidency and badly damaged his father's. Why would he risk their fate? Besides, say the pessimists, the president has so far shown no eagerness to lean on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and there is no evidence he is about to start. If he did, he would only get grief from the Christian conservatives to whom he may well owe his reelection -- and whose pro-Israel sentiments are stubborn.

What's more, add the gloom merchants, the White House will calculate that the departure of Arafat hardly makes the conflict instantly conducive to foreign intervention. There will not be a smooth succession, runs this view, but rather a power struggle, even chaos, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad bid for a greater role. If Palestine descends into civil war, with armed factions on the streets and Arafat replaced by multiple warlords rather than a single leader, then the U.S. will want to keep well away.

For all that, most Washington hands believe Bush will simply have to get involved. Until now, the White House position has been the same as Israel's: that diplomacy was futile so long as Arafat was at the helm. His indulgence of the intifada and refusals at Camp David in 2000 and afterward proved, they said, that he had not made the transition from revolutionary to statesman. But when Arafat is buried, that logic -- that excuse, perhaps -- will be buried with him. If Arafat was the obstacle, then the path to peace talks will now be clear.

That is especially true if the current and former prime ministers, Abu Ala and Abu Mazen, stay in charge. In 2002, Bush said he would support Palestinian reformers and moderates: Now he will face two leaders who surely fit that bill. If he refuses to deal with them, he will be defying his own policy.

There are other grounds to believe Bush will engage. He badly needs some goodwill for his Iraq venture, in the Arab world and in Europe. Action on the Middle East, as Blair will doubtless explain Wednesday, is a guaranteed way to get it. His grand foreign policy vision, restated throughout the election campaign, was of democracy spreading through the greater Middle East. That surely must include a shot at democratic self-rule for the Palestinians. Add into the mix the political debt he owes Blair; the freedom from electoral pressure he now enjoys as a final-term president; and the vanity that makes all presidents fancy "Middle East peacemaker" as part of their political epitaph, and you have good grounds to believe that Bush will act.

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After all, argues David Makovsky, veteran peace process watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, this is too good an opportunity to lose. "With Sharon pulling out of Gaza, Abu Mazen there -- you can't just say, 'I'm changing the channel.'"

But don't get carried away, Makovsky warns. Europeans, including Blair, will make a mistake if they define the current opportunity as a chance to solve the entire Israel-Palestine conflict, including the thorniest "final status" questions. If that is the bar they set for Bush, they will be badly disappointed; they will accuse the president of failing to do enough and the transatlantic rift will only widen. The opportunity Washington spots is much more modest: an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and areas of the northern West Bank, followed by successful Palestinian stewardship of that territory. That will boost confidence on both sides, which, after four years of shattered trust, is no mean achievement.

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So we know what to look for. If Bush appoints a serious, high-powered envoy to the region or presses Israel to yield something substantial enough to boost, say, Abu Mazen's credibility in the eyes of his own people, then you know he has decided to tune in. The policy of the next four years, at least in this area, will not be the same as the last.

But mortality hovers at another door. William Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court, is 80 years old and has been diagnosed with a serious form of thyroid cancer. Most expect his place on the bench will soon become vacant. How will President Bush react to this second intrusion by the brute facts of life and death? The answer will say as much about his domestic agenda as the Arafat episode will reveal of his plans for the world.

Some hope Bush will be magnanimous in victory, making good on his promise to be "a uniter not a divider," by nominating a centrist to fill Rehnquist's seat. That may prove too Pollyanna-ish for this president. "He will nominate a pro-life conservative," one Republican senator told me with complete certainty this week. "Millions of Christians worked very hard for his reelection," the senator added. He did not say "and they expect their reward"; he didn't have to.

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If he's right, Bush will present his nominee as a "strict constructionist," one who sticks to the letter of the law rather than reading into the constitutional rights and privileges that, conservatives insist, aren't there -- such as a woman's right to choose an abortion, for example. The result will be one of those bruising, partisan slugfests on the floor of the Senate, as America splits into its red and blue halves and divides against itself once more.

Death or illness may well hand Bush three or four vacancies on the Supreme Court, but this first one will tell us what course the president has in mind. Was he stirring the evangelical base just to get elected -- or because he is a true believer, committed to changing the face of modern America? Mortality has ensured that we will know soon enough.


Jonathan Freedland

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