[W]e have a great opportunity during this time of war to lead the world toward the values that will bring lasting peace. All fathers and mothers, in all societies, want their children to be educated and live free from poverty and violence. No people on Earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police.
Those words, uttered by President Bush toward the end of his State of the Union address Tuesday, must have seemed like a sick joke to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, whose daily lives are a study in oppression.
For that matter, they probably rang hollow also to Israelis, who find themselves saddled with the burden of a costly, demoralizing occupation that, far from making life peaceful and secure, has left it violent and nervous and uncertain.
Even Bush himself should have appreciated the irony: He speaks of "a great opportunity . . . to lead" at the very moment that he has, in effect, given up attempting to lead the two sides in this seemingly eternal conflict to any kind of peace.
On the contrary, Bush appears to have surrendered. He has effectively told the Israeli prime minister that whatever he chooses to do will be fine with the United States and he has gone so far as to suggest his administration might break off all contact with Yasser Arafat, the elected head of the Palestinian Authority.
Now if the Israeli prime minister were someone of stature and substance, like the late Yitzhak Rabin, following his lead wouldn't be nearly so worrisome (although it can never be a good thing to have the president yield policymaking to someone the American people didn't elect).
But the Israeli prime minister in this instance is the egregious Ariel Sharon, one of the authors of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and a man who has made no secret of his disdain for the entire Oslo peace process.
And even to suggest breaking contact with Arafat, ineffectual or devious though he may be, is to suggest returning to the foolish and discredited policy of the don't-talk-to-the-PLO era.
Bush is said to be angry because Arafat wasn't honest about a 50-ton arms shipment that the Israelis intercepted at sea earlier this month, a shipment apparently intended for the Palestinian Authority.
It's a little difficult to know how to react to such a reaction. Assuming he is right, does the American president suppose that Arafat is the first politician to lie in such a circumstance? Has he ever heard of plausible deniability? Or even implausible deniability?
Israel possesses one of the half-dozen most advanced, sophisticated armed forces in the world and for months it has moved at will through Palestinian territory. Did Bush suppose the Palestinians would never attempt to acquire something more than small arms with which to defend themselves? Would he send American troops against a vastly more powerful enemy with only small arms?
But maybe the best response is to ask why Bush doesn't grab this opportunity to lead. It ought to be evident to him by now that Arafat and Sharon can never conclude a peace. Arafat probably is too weak politically to be able to; Sharon, whose policies so far have resulted in what one commentator has called a "creeping reoccupation" of Palestinian territory, seems unwilling to.
If unrestrained, full-scale warfare breaks out between Palestinians and Israelis, Bush can kiss goodbye the Arab support that he has enjoyed so far in the war on terrorism. The time to act is now.
A European-American peacekeeping force should be deployed to impose peace. Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza should be told to find dwelling space in Israel. Palestinians should be disabused of the notion they will someday be able to return to ancestral homes in what now is Israel. Jerusalem should be placed under some form of international control, with everyone's access to his or her holy places guaranteed.
This will all be derided as hopelessly simplistic and not taking full account of the difficulties and sensitivities of the groups and peoples involved. But that's what all the folks who tried to untie the Gordian knot believed also.
What's needed is someone to do an Alexander and cut the knot. Right now, it doesn't look like George W. Bush is that someone.