Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Bush's Boundaries for Peace - Why Washington's "benevolence" is misguided.

George W. Bush's peace initiative issued on Monday was a triumph of misguided benevolence. It is possible that one day Bush may be recognized for being the first U.S. president to insist that an Arab people are capable of being democratic, tolerant, and free. But for the moment, his plan is disappointing evidence of the administration's bizarre sense of Middle East priorities.

Initially touted as a means of ending the violence between Palestinians and Israelis, Bush's proposal metamorphosed into a blueprint for getting rid of Yasser Arafat. This was Ariel Sharon's priority and Bush has made it his own; more than a half-century of Arab-Israeli antagonism has been reduced to one man.

More pressingly, the administration failed to address three questions raised by its own proposal: What incentive does Arafat now have to end the violence? What incentive does the Palestinian Authority have to implement reform when it has been accorded pariah status? And what incentive do the Palestinians have to accept a proposal that imposes on them a sequence of onerous conditions, with only vague promises of statehood in return?

In the end, Bush's proposal was the following: If the Palestinians change their leadership and work towards democracy-a tall order in a political system barely left standing-they will at most win U.S. recognition for a future Palestinian state and aspects of provisional sovereignty. According to U.S. officials, a possible time frame for this is 18 months.

Only then can the Palestinians and Israelis begin discussing, over a three-year period, final status issues, including borders, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Bush offered no commitments, abandoning more detailed proposals that the U.S. had offered in the past. On final boundaries Bush noted only that Israel's withdrawal would be to "secure and recognized borders," a term Sharon has used to defend retaining large swathes of occupied land.

On settlements too, Bush was elusive. While he did call on Israel to cease settlement activity, the president did not specify whether the practice of expanding existing settlements must end. If the U.S. is thinking in terms of an almost five-year time period, the question is crucial, since Israel can take advantage of the loophole to occupy much more land.

The assumption that the Palestinians will change their leadership and overhaul their political system to win U.S. recognition for provisional statehood is patently silly. The Bush proposal fails in every category that characterizes a serious mediation effort: It offers no incentives to the Palestinians; it fails to impose balanced concessions on the parties; and it seeks the ouster of one of the interlocutors.

One thing is clear: Sharon no longer sees an obstacle to exiling Arafat. That doesn't mean, however, he will soon send him packing. The Israelis now have much to gain by keeping Arafat around. The Palestinians have no intention of changing their leader, and Israel may just let him languish, an enduring obstacle to U.S. support of Palestinian statehood.

Bush's plan was notable for what it did not mention. It ignored the Saudi peace initiative approved by the Arab League summit, and the proposal of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Though Mubarak and the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faysal, recently met Bush in Washington, it was Sharon whom Bush listened to in the end. However, by sidestepping the Arab plans, Bush neutralized the Saudis and Egyptians as sponsors of his proposal.

Neither did the president bring up the idea of an international conference. In this too he followed in the path set by Sharon, who floated the idea during Operation Defensive Shield, but then retreated when he realized it might be to his disadvantage. However, without a conference the Arabs are denied an institutional context to pledge eventual normalization with Israel, undermining another of Bush's stated aims.

The president failed to mention the thousands of Palestinian prisoners recently picked up in the West Bank. Well before the current Intifada, Israel provoked Palestinian rancor by disregarding signed agreements for prisoner releases. By not mentioning the latest arrests, Bush implied that those detained were guilty. Yet he will not convince Palestinians to adopt the rule of law while allowing Israel to impose occupation law.

Bush may have satisfied Sharon and Israel's supporters in his administration, but he may also have provided myriad reasons for the violence between Israelis and Palestinians to continue.

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