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Comment and Analysis

No Details, No Hope

The president's Middle East speech called for all the right things. But he offered no plan to achieve them.

June 30, 2002|GERSHOM GORENBERG | Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount."

JERUSALEM — If you missed President Bush's speech on the Middle East conflict, it's not hard to find out what's in it. You can read the full text on the White House Web site. But to assess the long-awaited policy statement, it's actually more important to look at what isn't in it. The short answer is hope. For those who live in the Mideast and for Americans who care about what is happening here, the speech contained almost nothing that could lead to a peace initiative with a chance of succeeding.

First a word about what Bush did say. He called for two states living in peace and asserted that reaching that objective required all sides to fight terrorism. Living in Jerusalem, I certainly second that sentiment. In this city, the calendar seems stuck on Sept. 11 all year round. I know couples who won't meet at restaurants for lunch or take buses together, so as not to leave their kids orphaned in the event of a bombing. The most basic requirement of any diplomatic effort is that it change that reality.

The way to achieve that goal, the president said, is to replace the Palestinian leadership. That's a short, simple answer. To understand why it's not enough, we need to look at just some of the things that Bush didn't include in his vision.

First is the Saudi initiative. In the midst of the violence and diplomatic deadlock, Arab League approval of the Saudi peace initiative in March provided a glimmer of optimism. In return for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and establishment of a Palestinian state, the Arab states proposed full peace and normal relations.

The initiative was a starting point for talks, not an end point. Nonetheless, it was a victory for Israel: For the first time, the Arab world was collectively offering to recognize the Jewish state--at least in its pre-1967 boundaries. By putting the initiative on the table, the Saudis also tacitly acknowledged that their alliance with the U.S. depended on taking an active role in ending the conflict with Israel.

Bush could have pointed to the initiative as a positive proposal worth building on, outlining concrete steps to move the process forward. He would thereby have given moderate Arab leaders an incentive to stay involved in diplomatic efforts and rewarded Israeli politicians who took the risk of welcoming the Arab League decision.

He also would have made a statement to the Israeli public: Ultimately a peace agreement will rest on the pre-1967 boundaries, with negotiated adjustments. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's conception of a Palestinian state in fragmented pieces of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, squeezed between Israeli settlements, isn't a serious basis for an end to the conflict.

Another thing missing from the speech was any sense of the negotiations undertaken by Bill Clinton. Just before leaving the White House, President Clinton summed up his peace efforts with a speech to the Israel Policy Forum in New York. The president who'd arguably put more effort into Israeli-Palestinian peace than any American leader before him set down essential parameters for an agreement.

They asked a lot from both sides: Israel would have to give up most of the West Bank. Palestinians would have to drop their demand for the unlimited return of refugees to Israel. The solution in Jerusalem would give each side less than it wanted but keep the city open and undivided.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians would have signed off on the parameters as stated. But among those committed to peacemaking, Clinton's outline is recognized as a fair formulation of the direction needed to solve the outstanding issues. The parameters show a commitment to Israel's welfare--and recognize that its interest lies in ending its rule over the Palestinians.

Naturally, Bush has ignored the parameters. He's one of those executives who shows he's in charge by doing everything differently from the guy before him. If his predecessor had white curtains in the office, he wants brown ones; if his predecessor boosted sales, by golly, he'll cut them. So anything with the name Clinton on it has to go.

Instead, Bush vaguely spoke of ''secure and recognized borders'' for Israel, without saying what he meant by that. He said, ''We must

By skipping past the core issues of the conflict and making Arafat the sole obstacle to peace, Bush virtually signed on to the position of Sharon. Yet Sharon, Israel's most intransigent prime minister ever, is proof that a democratically elected leader can be more extreme than his electorate, less willing than his constituents to take the steps necessary for peace.

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