After delivering a speech on the Middle East many Jewish leaders privately admit they could not have written any better, President George W. Bush began seeking international support for the reforms he demanded the Palestinians implement before their state is born.
Bush’s bid to sell his vision for the Middle East was expected to dominate the G8 summit in the Rocky Mountain resort of Kananaskis, Canada, late this week. And American officials also sought support of the moderate Arab world, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to help finance Palestinian governmental reforms.
Bush coupled his call for reform and an end to the violence with a surprising demand for the ouster of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, although he did not refer to him by name. Bush himself wrote in that section of the speech Saturday after the White House said he received intelligence information that Arafat had authorized a $20,000 payment to the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, which took responsibility for the recent bus-stop bombing in Jerusalem that killed six Israelis.
But just a day after his tough speech, administration spokesmen sought to emphasize a more balanced approach to his position. Israel would need to take action before the Palestinian reforms were complete, they said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell even refused to rule out dealing with Arafat in the future. Asked what would happen if Arafat was re-elected in Palestinian presidential elections scheduled in January, he replied: “Well, we’ll just have to see how that plays out. I mean, we will deal with the circumstances as we find them.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said there was concern in Israel that these statements were “undermining the power of Bush’s initiative by creating the expectation that Israel will move first before there is an end to the terrorist attacks.”
“That is clearly against the simple meaning of the president’s speech,” he argued.
Critics argued that Bush had failed to spell out details of how he expected the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the political dynamic necessary to achieve a lasting peace. But Powell told an interviewer that there was no easy answer.
“These are difficult issues, and I think it’s unreasonable to expect us to — or anyone now — to have a precise road map as to how you get there,” he said.
Although in general Bush won praise for his speech from the international community, those who were critical focused on Bush’s demand for Arafat’s removal. The Arab world largely overlooked that section of his speech, and Britain and the European Union initially said they would continue to deal with him were he re-elected — a position Israeli leaders find untenable.
“The primary grievance raised by the president wasn’t that Arafat wasn’t elected but that he was involved in terrorism,” pointed out Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Steinberg said it is up to Bush to do some arm-twisting at the G8 summit so that the group issues a statement that “reinforces Bush’s message.”
“This is where the administration has to show its leadership capabilities,” he said, adding that such a statement would limit Palestinian attempts to claim that the re-election of Arafat would satisfy American demands for reform.
The G8 leaders are from the United States, Canada, France, Italy, Britain, Russia, Germany and Japan.
Just two days after Bush’s address, Saeb Ereket, a Palestinian Authority cabinet member, announced that presidential and legislative elections would be held sometime between Jan. 10 and 20, 2003, and that local elections would be held two months later.
In addition, he said the Palestinian Finance Ministry would be overhauled to make financial transactions more transparent, and he said the judicial system would be reformed and “competent judges” appointed in three months. He said also that a Palestinian constitution would be signed into law July 15, which provides for a separation of powers and assures Palestinians of basic rights.
Ereket made the announcement in Jericho, the only one of eight major Palestinian cities not under Israeli military control. The military began rolling into Palestinian cities last week following a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks that killed more than 40 Israelis in two weeks. And Sharon promised also to launch an air campaign to strike at Hamas terrorist bases in the Gaza Strip.
Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told a seminar there that Bush had actually strengthened Arafat by calling for his ouster.
“We are not going to see any Palestinians take the initiative and say Arafat has to go,” he said. “There’s not going to be a conspiracy against Arafat.”
Analysts pointed out that Arafat remains the most popular Palestinian leader even after 30 years of rule and six years after being elected chairman of the Palestinian Authority. A poll of Palestinians taken from May 29 through June 2 by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center found that 25 percent trusted him more than any Palestinian leader — three times more than his closest rival. In addition, 41 percent rated his performance as good or very good during the recent Israeli incursions; 29 percent rated it as bad or very bad. And 47.5 percent predicted Arafat would be re-elected.
But Steinberg pointed out that both Egypt and Jordan welcomed Bush’s speech. Mubarak praised his call for a need to restructure the Palestinian Authority and for setting up a new administration and Jordan said in an official statement that the Bush initiative marked “a beginning of the end of the conflict between the Arabs and Israelis.”
“They were clearly consulted before [the speech],” said Steinberg. “They knew what was coming and they see Arafat as the biggest threat to the survival of their own regimes. They are on board, and that is more important than any Palestinian reaction.”
He said their endorsement gives new momentum to the Saudi peace initiative and the Arab League declaration, which called for the Arab world developing normal ties with Israel in return for its withdrawal to the pre-1967 border, and a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.
“This means that the U.S. is seen as the leader of the [peace] process and that the first step is ending terrorism and removing Arafat,” Steinberg said.
Gold, Sharon’s adviser, noted that Bush also called on the Palestinians to come to terms with not only Israel but Egypt and Jordan with regard to security arrangements.
“The president is envisioning new roles for Egypt and Jordan that have not been spoken about since the Oslo Accords were first signed in 1993,” he said.
In his speech, Bush called for Israel to eventually withdraw to borders based on United Nations Resolution 242, not the pre-1967 borders. But the same Arab poll found that fully 51 percent of Palestinians favor “liberating all of historic Palestine,” in other words the destruction of Israel. In addition, 68 percent said they favored suicide bombings to achieve that goal and 52 percent opposed a resumption of peace talks with Israel while 46 percent favored it.
But Nabiel Fareed, a Palestinian American and former president of the defunct Palestinian American Chamber of Commerce, noted that other polls showed that 70 percent of Palestinians want peace. He said the Palestinian people had been afraid to voice opposition to Arafat’s rule in the past but are “now saying openly what they have been saying privately — that there is a need for change.”
Fareed pointed out that Palestinians have never been a violent people and that “whoever encourages these acts is not helping the Palestinian cause.”
The White House indicated that a provisional Palestinian state could be declared in 18 months and statehood in three years, a timeline Israeli leaders refuse to buy into and which Fareed said is academic “as long as the Palestinians understand their dream of a state free of corruption” is in the offing.
But Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of Gush Etzion in the West Bank, said that although he is “pleased that Bush really knows what’s going on in the Middle East,” he said it is unrealistic to believe the Palestinians will forge a democratic nation.
“There are 22 Arab countries and none is a democracy,” he said. “Now the world expects Arafat, the great terrorist, to create the first democratic Arab state. Come on! A lion cannot become a sheep.”
Noting that incitement against Israelis is taught in Palestinian classrooms, Goldstein said the next generation of Palestinians is infused with the same hatred as the present leadership.
“Unfortunately, as long as these people want to kill the Jews and use the phrases of the Nazis, there is no solution,” he added. “You cannot make a peace treaty with one who wants to kill you. President Bush never offered the Al Qaeda a peace treaty.”
Gold said the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. clearly “created a context that has made the war against terrorism the number one priority of this administration. It has become the filter through which the administration looks at regional conflicts around the world.”
Most Jewish leaders here expressed surprised pleasure at the speech.
During a conference call of community leaders around the country, “the mood was almost euphoric,” said an official with one major Jewish group. “It was almost as if the President was reading from our talking points,” he said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Bush’s plan provides “a very realistic blueprint that could lead to a meaningful process. It establishes preconditions based on the historical fact that democracies don’t go to war with one another.”
Hoenlein rejected complaints from some right-of-center groups based on Bush’s call for an eventual end to the Israeli “occupation” and for a freeze on settlements.
“The President struck just the right note,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “The clarity in saying that the Palestinians must find new leadership was remarkable. For those who thought a provisional Palestinian state would be quick and perhaps effortless, there was an element of comeuppance in the speech; the President made it very clear there would be as series of benchmarks the Palestinians would have to meet.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Bush presented “a welcome and fair vision of the future of the Middle East. None of the anxieties that some of us had were realized. I believe the American Jewish community will overwhelmingly welcome this president’s vision of the future.”
Pro-Israel members of Congress mostly praised the speech and its emphasis on Arafat’s removal.
“I applaud the president’s speech and strongly support his vision for the Middle East,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.). “In calling for new Palestinian leadership and democratic reforms, the President announced the end of the Arafat era. The European Union and the Arab world must now join us to achieve this vision.”
New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed Bush’s call for new Palestinian leadership, one that she said she hoped would “create political institutions based on democracy and a genuine commitment to fight against terrorism.” n
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.