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Jewish Leaders Generally Pleased That Bush Places Onus on Palestinians

June 25, 2002
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President Bush’s call for a change in Palestinian leadership as a step toward Palestinian statehood is being praised by American Jewish leaders and analysts as “historic.”

Some questioned how complete a road map Bush had laid out in his long-awaited Mideast policy speech Monday. But Jewish leaders generally issued a sigh of relief that Bush overwhelmingly had placed the onus on the Palestinians to prove their commitment to peace before any peace process could move forward.

“None of the Jewish community’s anxieties were realized,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

In the weeks before the speech, Jewish groups had been concerned that Bush would recommend the quick formation of a Palestinian state in hopes of inducing Palestinians to stop their campaign of violence against Israel.

Such a call, many Jewish groups warned, would be tantamount to rewarding terrorism rather than repudiating it.

On Monday, however, Bush presented a vision toward eventual Palestinian statehood that called for the ouster of the current Palestinian Authority leadership, fundamental reform in Palestinian institutions and a repudiation of the culture of violence and terrorism that the Palestinian Authority has tolerated — or, some would say, cultivated — since Yasser Arafat returned from exile in 1994.

While never mentioning Arafat by name in his speech, Bush made clear that he considers Arafat’s removal from power a precondition to progress, a position that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon long has advocated.

“Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born,” Bush said. “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, described Bush’s call to oust Arafat as “historic.”

“For the leader of the world’s leading superpower to explicitly call for the Palestinian people to change their leadership is almost unprecedented,” Harris said.

The Bush administration “connected the dots,” Harris said, about the Palestinian leadership’s links to terrorism, after Israel provided extensive documentation of Arafat links to terrorist organizations, weapons-smuggling, payments to terrorists and financial support for the families of suicide bombers.

Throughout his speech, Bush repeatedly described the Palestinian Authority leadership as corrupt, venal and riddled with terrorism.

Bush called on the Palestinians to elect new leaders “not compromised by terror,” and said that once violence ended, the United States would support 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.”

“My vision is two states living side by side in peace and security,” Bush said. “There is simply no way to achieve that peace until all parties fight terror.”

Long into Bush’s speech, he made a few demands on Israel: to pull the army back to its positions before the intifada began in September 2000, release tax money due to the Palestinian Authority and to end settlement construction.

However, he made it clear that such steps would be demanded of Israel only after the Palestinians had reformed their government and made clear their willingness to coexist peacefully.

Pressure was placed on Arab states to end incitement against Israel. to denounce terrorist actions and to stop transferring funds and equipment to terrorist organizations targeting Israel.

Bush also pledged additional humanitarian and financial aid to the Palestinians, from both the United States and international monetary groups.

Analysts saw the speech as the long-term vision for the Middle East that had been absent since the Oslo peace process collapsed at the end of 2000. Since Bush took office last year, many believed that his administration was handling situations on the fly, without a clear game plan.

“He has essentially created a post-Oslo framework,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He is making it clear that Palestinian aspirations for statehood are intertwined with reform and security.”

In the weeks before the speech, Arab leaders had pressed Bush to set forth a deadline by which a Palestinian state would be established. Jewish and Israeli leaders, on the other hand, called instead for benchmarks that would be used to judge Palestinian performance.

Bush’s eventual speech clearly sided with Israel’s call for a performance-based plan, while mentioning that if the Palestinians were vigorous in their reforms, the process should be completed within three years.

At the end of that time, however, the Palestinians would have only “provisional” statehood, with borders and certain aspects of their sovereignty to be defined in negotiations with Israel. That was another disappointment for the Palestinians, who had wanted Bush to back their demand for a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Instead, Bush backed Israel’s interpretation of crucial U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which does not call for a complete Israeli withdrawal from land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Instead, it calls for a withdrawal to “secure and recognized” borders that the two sides would negotiate.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and others could no longer accuse the United States of not playing a leadership role, and blame Israel for the plight of Palestinians.

“It’s not a reward for terrorism but a reward for the end of terrorism,” Hoenlein said. “It’s holding out hopes for a provisional arrangement and the ultimate possibility of a state, but conditioned on performance and meeting requirements.”

A senior administration official said Monday that two suicide bombings last week in Jerusalem, which killed 26 Israelis, made the president “more resolute” to seek alternative Palestinian leadership.

“Finally, you have to say something has to change, something has to be different,” the official said.

Yet analysts say question remain about the plan’s implementation.

“What’s the follow-through?” asked Ted Mann, former president of the Israel Policy Forum and past chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Bush noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell would “work intensively” with international leaders, there was no discussion of a new high-level trip to the Middle East or an international summit, which were both anticipated.

A senior administration official told Jewish leaders Monday that garnering international support would be key to implementing the president’s plans, and that Powell soon would begin coordinating positions with Europe and Russia.

Giving a speech that reaffirms the diplomatic solutions to the conflict is important in and of itself, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Stephen Cohen, a national scholar for the Israel Policy Forum, said the three-year time frame that Bush envisioned toward a Palestinian state is a “good goal line.”

“We need far more direct American engagement in order to meet that goal,” said Cohen, who joined Arab American leaders Monday in calling for a more active U.S. role in resolving the conflict.

Among the Jewish organizations expressing support for Bush’s message were the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Despite the widespread support for the speech, some Jewish officials and analysts were concerned.

Bush’s speech was “dead on arrival” and was “the most foolish speech by an American president on the Middle East,” Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes said.

Pipes said he did not believe the notion that Arafat is the cause of all of the Palestinians’ problems, and that reforming the Palestinian Authority would lead to peace.

He also called backing for a Palestinian state a “reward for terrorism.”

“It’s a very mischievous speech,” said Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum. “It says to the Palestinians that what you have done has won you concessions of the United States.”

David Zwiebel, the executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, welcomed Bush’s speech, but noted that it did not address the “culture of hatred” of Israel that the Palestinian Authority has cultivated in Palestinian society.

Zwiebel questioned the possibility that the Palestinians could break thoroughly with that culture in such a short period.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author and past chair of Americans for Peace Now, said she was concerned by Bush’s call to replace to Arafat.

“I don’t think America can dictate, ‘Dump your leader,’ ” she said. “I think the Palestinian legislature and the Palestinian people have to do that.”

Pogrebin also said she believed the speech did not place enough pressure on Israel to relieve the hardships of the Palestinian people.

“I don’t see where if you were a Palestinian living with the barrel of an Israeli gun in front of you and tanks all around you, that you would see the light at the end of the tunnel here,” she said.

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