President Bush’s Middle East speech arguably was the most unabashedly pro-Israel statement ever by an American president — yet it is getting mixed reviews in Israel.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is delighted by the fact that Bush did not lay down a firm deadline for Palestinian statehood, and that he made very clear what the Palestinians will have to do to before they can get their own state.
But Foreign Minister Shimon Peres fears that in demanding that the Palestinians oust Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — and replace him with leaders “not compromised by terror” — the president may have pushed too far.
Instead of a new leadership and an end to terror, the Palestinian response might be one of defiant solidarity around Arafat, resulting in even worse terror, Peres and others on the Israeli left fear.
Several key questions remain after the speech: How will the Palestinians respond? What kind of road map will be presented to translate Bush’s vision into reality? And what kind of practical changes will take place now on the ground?
Bush’s speech “leaves many open questions and uncertainty regarding the next step to be taken,” Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg said. “The president leaves the State of Israel alone facing the violence and the loss of life caused by the terrorist attacks without any clear commitment, without a sponsor for peace and without a roadway leading to his vision.”
The differing assessments between left and right are not surprising, since Bush put the onus for change almost entirely on the Palestinians: They must elect new leaders, reform their political, economic, security and judicial institutions, and stop terror, Bush demanded.
Bush did make certain demands of Israel — to withdraw the army to positions held before the intifada began in September 2000, for example, and to end settlement building — but Bush clearly made such steps contingent on Palestinian performance.
The key issue therefore, is how the Palestinians respond. On the one hand, they might see the American demands as both arrogant and impossible, and increase their violence until Washington “gets serious.”
On the other hand, they could conclude that America will back them all the way to statehood, and pour in enough funds to ensure that the state is viable, if they stop using terrorism and supporting a terrorist regime. The Palestinians could take Bush at his word, break sincerely with terrorism and wait to see whether Bush delivers on his promises.
After initial praise from Arafat on Monday, Palestinian reaction turned increasingly defensive, arguing that they would choose their own leaders and that the speech did not offer them enough hope.
A lot will depend on how the U.S. administration follows up on the speech and how other key players, especially the Europeans, respond.
If Secretary of State Colin Powell comes to the region soon with a more detailed road map for political movement, and if the Europeans also make political and economic support contingent on an end to terror, there could be positive movement.
But as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak noted in an interview with CNN immediately after Monday’s speech, Arafat likely will try to exploit even the smallest gap between the European and American positions to save his political skin.
European leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan rejected Bush’s call to replace Arafat, stressing that Arafat had been elected and that the Palestinians could choose their own leaders.
Most Israeli commentators are not optimistic that the speech will improve the situation on the ground.
“As far as the White House is concerned, either Palestine will be America, or the Middle East can wait,” Ofer Shelah wrote in Yediot Achronot, “bleeding all the while.”
Chemi Shalev commented in Ma’ariv: “Bush’s speech was perhaps a big step forward for Ariel Sharon, but it seems a very small step for the prospects of peace.”
Moreover, the speech left several key questions unanswered. For example, Bush did not mention the international Middle East peace conference that had been discussed for later this summer.
Does that mean the conference is contingent on changes in the Palestinian leadership and institutions? Or will it be used to jump-start movement in that direction by offering clear political rewards, like provisional Palestinian statehood?
Furthermore, will Sharon take Bush’s unmistakable call to replace Arafat as license to expel him? For weeks now, Sharon has been pushing for Arafat’s expulsion, only to be blocked by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and warnings from military intelligence and the Mossad.
On the Israeli right, however, the voices in favor of deporting Arafat are growing more insistent. Cabinet minister Dan Naveh, one of the leading advocates of expulsion, argues that as long as Arafat is around, no alternative Palestinian leadership can emerge.
“The voices of reason will be afraid to speak out,” he argues.
Naveh dismisses assessments by military intelligence and the Mossad that Arafat would be more dangerous abroad than in the West Bank.
For now, Arafat is still in charge and, according to Israeli intelligence sources, doing nothing to stop terror attacks against Israel. Indeed, Sharon has made it clear that Israel’s current invasion of Palestinian cities in the West Bank is part of a new security doctrine in which Israel “expects nothing of Arafat.”
If the Oslo process meant handing over partial responsibility for Israel’s security to the Palestinians, Israel is now reclaiming that responsibility in full. The new doctrine provides for a security fence between Israel and the West Bank to stop terrorists; periodic occupation of Palestinian cities to root out terrorist bases; and short, sharp operations based on pinpoint intelligence.
Operation Protective Wall, in which the Israel Defense Force took over Palestinian cities, destroyed terrorist infrastructure and made thousands of arrests, was a first run of the new doctrine.
The fact that the operation was followed quickly by a new wave of suicide bombings shows just how widespread the terror bases are and how quickly the terrorists are able to regroup. Yet IDF sources are confident that the problem lies not in the overall concept but in the fact that the army simply did not stay in the cities long enough, as international pressure for an Israeli withdrawal mounted.
This time, as Operation Determined Path gets under way, the IDF intends to stay in Palestinian areas much longer — perhaps even for several months at a stretch — until the security fence is erected.
But there clearly is no intention of formally reoccupying the West Bank. Both Sharon and Ben-Eliezer have come out strongly against formal reoccupation, which would leave Israel responsible for providing Palestinians with basic services such as education and garbage collection.
Amos Gilad, the coordinator of government activities in the Palestinian territories, is adamant that Operation Determined Path is meant only to strike at Palestinian terrorist bases, not to reinstitute a civil administration. The IDF, he says, will limit itself to encouraging the Palestinian civil authority and helping international agencies dispense aid.
The trouble with the new policy is that Israel could find itself sucked into reoccupation and responsibility for some 3.5 million Palestinians — and with an American peace plan that some deride as unrealistic.
If it continues, the status quo could prove inimical to Israel’s long-term interests. According to recent demographic projections, Palestinians will be a majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea by 2010. If they are still occupied by Israel, they might demand a single, binational state, rather than a two-state solution, thus forcing Israelis to choose between a Jewish state and a democratic one.
In the end, it is those underlying demographics that make Shimon Peres and others on the left conclude that Sharon’s delight with the Bush speech is short-sighted.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.