The long-awaited speech by President George W. Bush on the Middle East marks a resounding victory for the pro-Likud hawks in his administration and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Sharon and his supporters within the Bush White House (Cheney, Rumsfeld et al) have tried for months to persuade the Bush administration and the larger public that Israel's fight against Palestine -- and Yasser Arafat, in particular -- is an extension of the global war on terror. It seems their efforts have paid off.
"I'm surprised he didn't begin his speech with 'Shalom', the standard Israeli greeting," said one Arab journalist here after Bush's appearance in the White House Rose Garden. "I'm surprised he didn't read it in Hebrew."
Outlining his plan for peace in the Middle East, Bush insisted that Palestinians elect "new leaders, new institutions, and new security arrangements with their neighbors" as a precondition for U.S. support for an independent Palestinian state. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," Bush declared. In doing so, the president wholly repudiated Yasser Arafat -- though he never once mentioned his name.
The speech was greeted with enthusiastic praise by the coalition of Christian Right and neo-conservative hawks who have repeatedly called on Bush to extend his war on terrorism in Afghanistan to Iraq and Iran, as well as the Palestinian Authhority.
"President Bush showed strong moral leadership by acknowledging that the path to peace doesn't run through Arafat's compound," said the House Majority Whip, Tom DeLay, one of Likud's most fervent backers in Congress. Christian Right televangelist Pat Robertson was "delighted" by Bush's demand for the ouster of Arafat and predicted that Arab states "are going to come into line." The Wall Street Journal, which has been calling for Arafat's ouster for months, praised Bush's break from "tired Saudi-State diplomacy," and called the speech "far more daring [than had been expected], and potentially a major leap forward in U.S. Middle East diplomacy."
Bush's speech -- which appeared to drive the last nail into the coffin of the nine-year-old Oslo peace process -- is a major blow to moderates within the administration, especially Secretary of State Colin Powell. Although Powell publicly defended Bush's decision to effectively break with Arafat the next day, he had been privately warning the President against such a policy for weeks. Powell believes the action may exacerbate the level of violence, particularly if it is not accompanied by tough demands on Israel.
That prediction was echoed by none other than Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, according to a correspondent with Yediot Aharonot, Israel's biggest mass-circulation newspaper. Shimon Shiffer -- who was with the minister as he watched Bush's speech -- wrote that Peres repeatedly denounced Bush's demand for Arafat's ouster as a "fatal mistake." He warned that, "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."
Bush did offer Palestinians the prospect of an internationally recognized "provisional state" within 18 months. A final peace accord with Israel -- covering the status of Jerusalem, recognition of the two countries' permanent borders, and the fate of Palestinian refugees -- would be negotiated within another 18 months. But he also warned that Palestinian failure to implement sweeping reforms and satisfy Israeli security demands could stall progress toward those ends indefinitely. Moreover, acccording to Bush, Israel should only have to withdraw from Palestinian territory and end its settlement activity "as we make progress towards security."
In comparison, the president set very few conditions on Israel and did not repeat his previous demand (made less than three months ago) for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from territory and towns handed over to the PA under the Oslo process at that time. Sharon ignored the U.S. call for withdrawal and was then praised by Bush as a "man of peace" when he visited the White House a few weeks later. Bush also obliged Sharon by issuing pointed warnings to Syria for its backing for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in his speech. "There is nothing here that could give Palestinians hope," said James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute (AAI) and a supporter of the Oslo process.
Peace activists also found little cause for hope in Bush's speech.
"The root cause of terrorism and suicide bombing was hardly addressed at all: the situation of young Palestinians under an increasingly tight occupation, who see themselves oppressed and dispossessed, deprived of all hope and expectation for the future, abandoned by the world, and who reach the point where they decide to blow themselves up in order to kill random Israelis," said Adam Keller, spokesperson for Israel's Gush Shalom, or Peace Bloc.
Others assailed Bush's attack on Arafat, who said Tuesday that he still intends to run for re-election early next year. "While we have found Arafat to have been a very problematic partner," said Mark Rosenblum of Americans for Peace Now (APN), "this is a strange way to promote democracy -- insisting that the Palestinians elect someone to [Bush's] liking or they will not get what he says they have a right to get: a Palestinian state living in peace and security."
Rosenblum also expressed concern that Sharon will now feel free to pursue his military efforts against alleged terrorists and the remains of the Palestinian Authority without any pressure to negotiate a cease-fire. "If you're saying the current leadership is not a party with whom you can negotiate diplomatically, then it's not clear how you can engage the Palestinians in the interim," said Rosenblum, who spoke by telephone with AlterNet from Israel where he has been meeting with Palestinian officials and peace activists. "A diplomatic initiative is what is missing in the president's speech, and that may be seen as giving Sharon a green light to continue with his military campaign."
The Israeli army re-occupied Hebron, the only major West Bank town free of Israeli control other than Jericho, immediately after Bush concluded his remarks. "In fact, as we are already seeing, what the President did was allow the Sharon government to continue its repressive military occupation of Palestinian land," Zogby said.
Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy issues for AlterNet, Inter-Press Services and Foreign Policy In Focus.