Bush Mispronounces Middle East Peace

Phyllis Bennis—July 8, 2002

President Bush's much-awaited Middle East policy pronouncement was very much a post-September 11 speech. It was shaped by the unbridled power of an unchallenged global sovereign, unconcerned with the differing opinions or legitimate interests of any other nations, peoples, or regions. And it consolidated a key aspect of the administration's strategic approach: ramp up the pressure on key Arab allies to support a U.S. attack (whether full-scale military invasion or escalated covert overthrow/assassination attempts) on Iraq by claiming a new commitment to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But that claim of a "solution" flies in the face of the spin-driven realities and strategic limitations of the speech. Its effect was to assert Washington's intention to maintain unlimited U.S. military support for, economic aid to, and diplomatic protection of Israel, while allowing any future "peace process" to drift under Israeli control, initiative, and timetable.

Bush's opening words deftly sketched out what both Israel backers in the U.S. and jittery Arab regimes and desperate Palestinian leaders wanted to hear, balancing what was unbearable for both parties: "It is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror. It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation." There was a vision stuck in there early on, of two states living side by side in peace and security. Had that even-handed, visionary approach shaped the substance of the speech beyond the rhetoric, it would have marked a breathtaking shift in U.S. policy trajectory.

But it did not. Instead, in a speech filled with abundant carrots and menacing sticks, it lacked even the pretense of providing equivalent sticks and carrots to both sides. The carrots were for Israel, which in Bush's parlance is simply defending itself against terrorist attacks. Palestinians must be prevented from attacking Israel, and implicit in Bush's words was Washington's backing of any action, however illegal under international law, Israel might take. Arab states must go after organizations that attack Israel. Leaders who want to be taken seriously must endorse Washington's version of peace. And Arab states "will be expected" to move quickly towards normalizing relations with Israel.

Finally, Bush urged Israel to take [unnamed] concrete steps "to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state." Why? Not because occupation is illegal and Israel is obliged under international law, the Geneva Conventions and a host of long-violated UN resolutions to end its occupation, but because "permanent occupation threatens ISRAEL's identity and democracy." (Emphasis added.) When? Only later, "as we make progress toward security," after the Palestinians have made all of the numerous and onerous concessions demanded of them, would any specific demands be imposed on Israel. Only then, at that undefined point in the future, would a call come for Israeli withdrawal-but only to the occupation positions it held prior to the intifada's eruption in September 2000. Only then would a hold on settlement expansion be requested-but not the evacuation of the existing 400,000 settlers. Only then would Israel be asked to release frozen tax revenue belonging to the Palestinians-but only when the money could be released "into honest, accountable hands." They were small, incremental, limited requests.

Palestine got the sticks. What were the Palestinians asked to do? Ousting Yasir Arafat was only for starters. They must choose new leaders "not compromised by terror," and build a lively market-friendly democracy "based on tolerance and liberty." Palestinian success in reaching all the requirements for their new little democracy would be judged by a multiplicity of factors-including creation of a market economy, leadership defined by its active opposition to terrorism, a new constitution, separation of powers, an independent judiciary-no democratic laggards here! If they succeeded, we should note, Palestine would be the first such democratic bastion in the entire Middle East. President Bush's call was for the Palestinians, after 35 years of brutalization, suppression, and occupation, to rise up and build a shining micro-Sweden on the hill.

Then, and only then, would the U.S.-what? Finally demand an end to Israel's occupation? Stop providing billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Israel? No, not even close. If and when such accomplishments were reached, the U.S. would then support the creation of something unprecedented in international law and diplomacy, a "provisional" state-with no borders, no capital, no control of water or resources, no control of coastlines or airspace, immigration or commerce. It would be, as one commentator noted, the equivalent of a woman being a little bit pregnant. Sovereignty either exists or it does not; "provisional" sovereignty is the equal of no sovereignty at all.

President Bush claimed he could understand "the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people." One might have hoped that that reflected a new lesson, that someone among his myriad of advisers had finally succeeded in enlightening the president about the reality of military occupation, its terrors and its torment. But no, occupation is not the basis of Bush's understanding of Palestinian despair. His version recognizes instead that Palestinian anger is rooted not in occupation, but in being "held hostage to a comprehensive peace agreement that never seems to come." In other words, Palestinians are not angry at Israel's military occupation, but at Arab governments demanding a comprehensive and regional peace. (There is, certainly, widespread and intense anger among Palestinians towards Arab regimes that have used the Palestinian cause for their own power-driven ends, while lip service substituted for concrete assistance to Palestine. But the notion that such well-founded resentment somehow trumps Palestinian reactions to Israeli military occupation belies rational thought.)

So what could Palestinians look to in a future shaped by a Bush Junior vision? The visionary words "end to occupation and a peaceful democratic Palestinian state" were dangled tantalizingly close. But Bush did not even make the pretense of claiming such goals were part of his operative plan. Instead he acknowledged that such goals "seem distant," and was careful to say nothing that might imply they were any closer. No one should have any unrealistic expectations, no one should be holding their breath for any change in real U.S. policy on the ground. Not to worry, though. In the long term, "America and our partners throughout the world stand ready to help, help you make [those goals] possible as soon as possible." In the very long term.

The Israeli press across the political spectrum (as usual reflecting a far wider spectrum than that available in the mainstream U.S. press) was virtually uniform in acknowledging the speech as one that could have been written by Ariel Sharon. One Israeli government commentator reported that as the pro-Israeli carrots of the speech rolled on, he kept waiting for the stick. "Then I realized there was no stick," he said.

Not for Israel, at least. Israel was the unqualified winner.

But even beyond the Palestinians, there were plenty of other losers. Colin Powell lost a lot, and the speech gave rise to new speculation regarding the seeming continuity of his declining influence against the Pentagon-based ideologues grouped around Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his super-hawk deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. Powell's plan to travel to the region to try to push for implementation of a new U.S. strategy was derailed when it became clear that Bush's speech contained no new strategy. The secretary of state's announced efforts to convene some kind of international gathering (even if it was never intended to be what the world understands as a serious, empowered international peace conference) were abandoned. Ironically, while the initiative was grounded in U.S. efforts to win Arab support for a new war against Iraq, the astonishingly overt nature of the speech's pro-Israeli tilt virtually insured Powell's failure to do just that. Multilateral approaches were once again rejected.

 The Arab regimes lost as well. The speech was ostensibly designed to encourage their support for an anti-Iraq war, by giving them something to soothe their outraged publics demanding that the governments sever their ties with Washington, the bankroller and quartermaster of Israel's occupation. But its effect was quite the opposite. The Arab states themselves were told they were "expected" to move towards normalization of relations with Israel, and their only role in the new peace process was to serve as midwives to the new Palestinian democracy-quite a job for the unsavory assortment of absolute monarchies and elected-for-life presidencies that make up Washington's Arab allies.

 That is not to say that we can expect to hear serious critical assessments, let alone rejection, of Bush's approach from the Arab rulers. If any had fantasized such a rash course, they were certainly frightened away from any such idea by Bush's explicitly renewed threat regarding nations that are "either with us or against us in the war on terror. To be counted on the side of peace, nations must act." Acting, in this context, does not include criticizing the Bush line. Offering air space, base rights or port facilities for the current U.S. military build-up surrounding Iraq, on the other hand, will do just fine.

 News continues to filter out of the Pentagon regarding planning for a quarter-million strong U.S. invasion of Iraq, challenged only by those in the administration arguing instead for a revved-up covert operation to bring Saddam Hussein's head on a plate. Arab regimes nervous about growing popular resentment of their alliances with the U.S. and the resulting crises of legitimacy faced by virtually every Arab leader, are stuck between a very solid rock and an extremely hard place. If they continue their pro-U.S. stance, they face increased instability, in a few cases maybe even overthrow. But U.S. support-economic support of Jordan; military support of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and throughout the Gulf; and both economic and military support of Egypt-is what keeps those unpopular regimes in power. Forced to choose between popular support and U.S. backing, repression will escalate at home and Washington will nod in satisfaction. The losers will be not only the Palestinians but the Egyptians, Saudis, Qataris, and other Gulfies-and the people of Iraq.

 International law was a big loser too. Bush rejected even the pretense of recognizing that military occupation is illegal, and that international law requires simply that Israel must end its occupation. The specific language of resolution 242, reasserting unequivocally the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war," was nowhere to be found. Instead, Bush crafted his novel idea that a "provisional" Palestinian state could be declared when and if the Palestinians are found worthy of such a gift, without ending Israel's occupation.

The United Nations, once again, lost. Powell's negotiations, pro forma or not, with the "Quartet" of Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, were simply abandoned. The viability of an entirely new peace process, one rooted in international law, UN resolutions and human rights, and based in a UN-centered diplomatic process, was never even considered.  With the speech closely following Washington's endorsement of Israel's rejection of the Security Council's fact-finding team for Jenin, the exclusion of the world organization from Bush administration Middle East strategic planning seems complete.

The Palestinians, of course, are the biggest losers. The U.S. demand to oust Arafat only insures greater support for him, makes the on-going efforts of Palestinian democracy advocates much more difficult. Bush put the U.S. on record once again, for anyone who still didn't want to believe it, that Washington does not view Israel's military occupation as playing any role in fomenting violence, in the lack of Palestinian democracy, in destabilizing the region. Denying the centrality of occupation in regional turmoil, and its centrality in U.S. policy, continues to exact an enormous price.

Once again, the only winners of this latest round of Washington's Middle East game in the region are Ariel Sharon and his settler backers, and Israel's occupation itself. Here in the U.S., those who cheered were the backers of Israel's occupation in Congress, the pro-Israeli lobbies, and the arms industry.

For the rest of us-the Palestinians, the Israelis who want an end to occupation, the American taxpayers tired of funding endless brutal occupation, the Europeans and Arabs and Africans and Latin Americans tired of the U.S. calling the shots and excluding the international community - we all have a lot of work to do. 


Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies, is on the Steering Committee of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, and author of the forthcoming Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis.