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A Myopic Vision: Bush Learns from Sharon

Naseer Aruri—June 29, 2002


The mountain went into labor, but gave
Birth to a mouse

—a famous Arabic saying


The long-awaited speech by George W. Bush, presented on 24 June marks a departure from the Clinton era's policy, in that it effectively endorsed Sharon's abrogation of the Oslo process, the centerpiece of American diplomacy in the Middle East. For the first time since 1993, the United States government turned its back on the idea of the sides returning to the negotiating table, albeit for 35 years that table produced nothing but choas, suffering and destruction, with the major brunt carried by the Palestinians. Sharon's veto of the mere idea of a resumption of talks was delivered two weeks earlier during his sixth visit to the White House, when Bush called him my "teacher."

The bulk of the Bush speech was devoted to commands and conditions, largely addressed towards the Palestinians, but rarely to Israelis. It certainly included the standard warning to abandon "terror," a staple item in Bush's post-September 11 lexicon, which appeared ten times in a speech consisting of 1867 words, none of which made any association between terror and Israel. Unlike Powell's Louisville speech of November 2001, Bush's demands and refrains did not address the Israelis, other than a few statements uttered without conviction: Restore freedom of movement, but only after "violence subsides," withdraw to "positions held prior to September 28, 2000, and stop "settlement activity," in accordance with the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee. Bush's remarks about the occupation ignored Palestinian suffering and were limited to friendly advice that it "threatens Israel's identity and democracy." Other than these non-deadline solicitations, Bush's commands, refrains and threats were reserved to those "who are not with us" Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians and "terrorists." Even America's client states in the Arab world, who are "not against us," were told to establish "full normalization of relations" with Israel, ignoring the Arab League's expressed willingness to do so in exchange for an end to the occupation last March at a Beirut summit.

Bush's speech called on the Palestinians,who have been trapped in their homes for weeks and months indefinitely under house/life arrest , to change their leaders, to "build a practicing democracy," to acquire " new political and economic institutions based on democracy[and] market economy," to adopt a new constitution, which" separates the powers of government," to conduct "multiparty local elections by the end of the year," to establish a "truly independent judiciary," to streamline the security system, and of course to stop "terrorism." Only when the Palestinians comply with such impossible to meet demands, will they be eligible for invitation to negotiations that could optimally offer them a "provisional" state. Even the New York Times wondered on 25 June " How the Palestinians can be expected to carry out elections or reforms themselves while in a total lockdown by the Israeli military remains something of a mystery." Even the pro-Israel, NBC anchor of the Nightly News, Tom Brokaw challenged Powell to reconcile the Administration's call for elections with refusal to meet with Arafat if re-elected. In a similar vein, Jonathan Friedland of the Guardian (26 June, 2002) aptly remarked that the speech " consisted, from beginning to end, of fantasy...asking a nation to create the institutions of a highly developed country before it becomes a state... Bush is demanding that Palestine become Sweden before it can become Palestine..."

In return for meeting these conditions, Bush promised to " support the creation of 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." Revealing his own disconnect from Middle East reality, he pledged to enlist the help of the Europeans and the Arab states in the task of building a democratic system, as if Arab leaders, who normally rule for life, are an oracle to be consulted on democratic governance. And yet, if all goes well, the provisional state might take three years, after which the two parties may( but not forced to) address the core issues that divide them.

Not surprisingly, the Bush commandments are devoid of any time tables,stages, guarantees, or safeguards; in fact, ultimately the settlement will be bilateral without any international supervision. If Oslo's seven years permitted Israel to double its settlements and settlers, the post-Oslo, post- Palestinian Bush democracy period might leave nothing to negotiate about, as Sharon has been given a free hand (in the name of self-defense) to formalize the apartheid-like arrangements in 42 percent of the west Bank. A "provisional state" is a concept that lacks a proper definition and has no meaning in either politics or international law. It recalls Madeleine Albright's concept of a "sort of a sovereignty," for the Palestinians in Jerusalem in accordance with Barak's so-called "generous offer." Moreover, Bush's intent to address "aspects of sovereignty" is another vague concept that makes one wonder whether these "aspects" will include the permanent fragmentation of the West Bank to permit extra-territoriality for Israeli settlers and soldiers, permanent checkpoints in the name of security, consolidation of illegal settlement blocs and, indeed, the absence of any international protection or guarantees of this peculiar form of statehood. A provisional state is just likely to be the fiction that Sharon supports—a collection of disconnected eight cantons in the West bank, separated from Israel by a long electronic fence, and from each other by Israeli checkpoints and by-pass roads for Jews only.

The fact that 3 million Palestinians are now living in what Israeli analyst, Nahum Bernea called "Israel's penal colonies," totally isolated and literally beseiged by trigger-happy soldiers, did not seem to merit any hint of an immediate solution by the Bush "peace plan." How can these virtual prisoners, whose civilian infrastructure has been decimated, who suffer under an inflated unemployment rate of 80 percent( reduced to 44 percent when the Israeli Army is on temporary break) proceed towards making Palestine a microcosm of the United States? Mr. Bush could have at least addressed a modality for filling the six month gap between now and election time in January 2003. His failure to do so casts a dark shadow on the prospects for ending the illegal collective punishment of an entire nation. The resumption of normal life in the reoccupied territories is, after all, a necessary step towards the fulfilment of Bush's impossible demands.

Surely, this was hardly a plan, never mind a peace plan. In fact, even some of Sharon's cabinet colleagues were dismayed by the speech and its anticipated disastrous consequences. Shimon Shiffer of the largest Israeli evening newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, had a chance to watch Foreign Minister Shimon Peres watching the Bush speech on television, and he gave the following description:

Shimon Peres' face became more and more weary and angry the longer Bush went on with his speech. "He is making a fatal mistake" remarked Peres. " Making the creation of a Palestinian state dependent upon a change in the Palestinian leadership is a fatal mistake" he repeated again and again. " The abyss into which the region will plunge will be as deep as the expectations from this speech were high. There will be a bloodbath." (info@gush-shalom.org, 25 June, 2002)

Another Cabinet colleague, Ruby Rivlin, Communications Minister from the Likud Party commented:

It looks like it was written by a senior Likud official. We are talking about a pro-Israel speech and a victory for the course taken by Prime Minister Sharon. (Ross Dunn, "Sharon could have written speech," Times, London, 26 June 2002)

A number of Israeli journalists are quoted repeating the same theme:

Nahum Bernea, a columnist for the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth said: "Sharon could demand copyright on the speech—he couldn't have dreamt of a more pleasant address."Hemi Shalev, in the newspaper Ma'ariv, wrote: " One can only imagine

Sharon watching the speech on TV, and the smile on his face spreading wider until he cries with joy when he hears Bush demand Arafat's political head on a platter." (Ibid.)

Writing in the same vein, Robert Fisk, the veteran British journalist commented rhetorically in the Independent ( 26 June,2002) thus:

Why, I wonder, doesn't Mr. Bush let Ariel Sharon run the White House press bureau? Not only would it be more honest—we would at least be hearing the voice of Israel at first hand—but it would spare the American President the ignominy of parotting everything he is told by the Israelis.

There seems to have been a consensus in the Israeli press that the Bush speech was bound to encourage Sharon to step up his military offensive, and that the lack of any time table would not bring about any political talks anytime soon. The Washington Post and New York Times expressed similar misgivings, while the European press seemed unanimous in its cool reception to the speech. George Bush was unable to sell his speech to his allies who were attending the G-8 meeting in Canada on the very next day. Almost everyone of these leaders felt the need to distance himself from Bush's position by commenting on the right of the Palestinians to name their own leaders. Moreover, the Danish government, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, expressed worries that after Bush's speech "the United States has effectively abandoned the mideast peace process." (Haaretz 28 June 2002)

Why then did Egypt and Jordan, which offered Israel peace and normalization only three months earlier, embrace the charade? Why would they out-Israelize Sharon? Worse yet, why did the Palestine Authority, which was asked to self-negate, welcome the speech and the opportunity to cooperate with a government that has nothing but contempt for its leaders, even as it continues to provide the weapons, funds, and diplomatic means to kill their people, destroy their property and marginalize their cause? Is it sheer stupidity, utter helplessness, or clever pragmatism that led them to act like masochists? Is it that in the aftermath of September 11, the United States has become such a leviathan, that these regimes are squeezed between the rock of their disgruntled people and the Bush hard place? Having barely any legitimacy at home, did they decide to concede their role of puppet in exchange for protection? As for Yasir Arafat's dwindling entourage, they are either calling Bush's bluff by producing a 2400 word document titled "Program of Reform," or trying to hopelessly appease an American President, who has a pathological malevolence towards them and their people? Either way, their response is pathetic, particularly when one reads the date of their document (23 June—one day prior to the Bush speech), as if to disengenuously convey the impression that they decided to undertake reform before Bush asked them to do so.

The Bush presidency might well become synonymous with the effective death of the so-called peace process. Maligned neglect is what characterized US policy during 18 months of the Bush Administration, during which Bush was swinging between two positions in the national security establishment. On the one hand, there is the position of the neo-conservative hold-outs from the Reagan/Bush I Administration, such as Rumsfeld and Cheney, the champions of a hard-line policy synchronized with Sharon's machinations. Together, with neo-conservatives in Congress allied with Christian fundamentalists, such as Tom Delay and Dick Armey of Texas, these hawks argued that the war on terror cannot be divisible, hence the US and Israel are in the same trench fighting the same enemy—international terrorism. Hence, American diplomacy was to initially take a low profile in the Middle East, giving Sharon a free hand to eliminate the "infrastructure of terror,"such as police stations, census bureau, Land Department, Ministry of Education, cultural institutions and all the components of a state-in-waiting.

On the other side, there was the weaker faction headed by the timid Secretary of State, Colin Powell, supported by some State Department professionals and former politicians who tend to be sensitive to the long-term strategic effects of US policy. Any moves by the US towards the negotiations table are being currently portrayed, by neo-conservatives, the pro Israel lobby and Israel's men and women in Congress, led by Presidential hopefuls, such as senators Kerry and Leiberman, among others, as a sell-out of Israel, a cardinal sin in American politics. For a very brief period during March and April 2002, there appeared to be a semblance of a contest between pragmatists, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and editorial writers in the New York Times and Washington Post, on the one hand, and the neo-conservative-Evangelical right in Congress, the think tanks and television media, on the other. The former had counseled against what seemed to be a lack of distinction between the US and the Likud position as harmful to the American national interest, particularly in view of the rising anti-American feeling throughout the Arab world, and in terms of the future impact of US policy on the coming invasion of Iraq. Such a debate had proven to be short-lived and largely inconsequential. On 24 June, George Bush, with both eyes on the 2004 Presidential elections, let it be known that votes are far more important than human lives. He is doing his utmost to learn from his father's costly "mistakes," and has already reinforced America's super-right endorsment with that of Israel's right and its super-right. Benny Elon, leader of the Israeli Moledet Party, who was meeting with US Senators and Congressmen at the end of June 2002, seeking their support for the expulsion of Palestinians east of the Jordan River, said the following about Bush: "I don't know another president that was so with us against the terrorists, and I don't know another president that pushed so much for a Palestinian state" (Malissa Radler. "MK Elon lobbies US legislators for voluntary transfer plan," Jerusalem Post, June 27, 2002).