On the one hand, it is reassuring that, after thirty years of rejecting the international consensus that peace requires the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, an American president now formally recognizes that need. The bad news is that President Bush is simply perpetuating the unfair assumption that while Israel’s right to exist is a given, Palestine’s right to exist–even as a mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip–is conditional.
This comes despite the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has at least as much blood on his hands as does Palestinian President Yasir Arafat. Indeed, far more Palestinian civilians have died at the hands of Israeli occupation forces than have Israeli civilians died from terrorist attacks.
Furthermore, despite Arafat’s many faults, the Palestinian leader’s positions on the outstanding issues of the peace process–the extent of the Israeli withdrawal, the fate of the settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees–are far more moderate and far more consistent with international law and UN Security Council resolutions than are the positions of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Despite that, President Bush insists that it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who must have new leadership in order for the peace process to move forward.
The current administration’s distorted priorities could not have been more apparent than in the fact that, in the course of his speech, the president mentioned terrorism eighteen times but did not mention human rights or international law even once. Nor did he mention the peace plan of Saudi Prince Abdullah–endorsed by the Palestinian Authority and every single Arab government–which offered Israel security guarantees and full normal relations in return for withdrawal from the occupied territories seized in the 1967 war. This is largely a reiteration of UN Security Council resolution 242 and 338, long considered to be the basis for Middle East peace. While President Bush mentioned these resolutions briefly in his speech, he failed to challenge Israel’s false claim that it does not actually require them to withdraw from virtually all of the Arab lands they conquered 34 years ago.
The Palestinians are only insisting on control of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is just 22% of Palestine. They have already recognized Israeli control of the remaining 78%. However, not only did President Bush fail to demand a total withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces, he called only for a freeze on additional Israeli settlements, when international law–reiterated in UN Security Council resolutions 446 and 465–requires Israel to abandon the existing settlements as well.
The fact is that, as the occupying power, the onus for resolving the conflict rests upon Israel, not the Palestinians. Just as occupation and repression can never justify terrorism, neither can terrorism justify occupation and repression.
The Palestinians have such a strong case, in fact, the Bush Administration has chosen to focus instead upon their weakest link: their corrupt and inept leadership and the terrorist reaction to the occupation.
Even Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres was quoted saying "Making the creation of a Palestinian state dependant upon a change in the Palestinian leadership is a fatal mistake. Arafat has led the Palestinians for 35 years, kept their head above the water in the international arena. No, no, you can’t just brush him aside with one speech."
While many if not most Palestinians would love to see Arafat go, President Bush’s insistence that the United States has the right to say who the Palestinians choose as their leaders will likely breed enormous resentment. Indeed, Arafat–in his desperate attempt to hold on to power–can now use this American pressure as an excuse to label any reformist effort, even those led by sincere nationalists, as a form of collaboration with Israel and a tool of Western imperialism.
It is remarkable how President Bush insists on democratic governance and an end to violence and corruption as a prerequisite for Palestinian independence when his administration, as well as administrations before him, has strongly supported a series of violent, corrupt and autocratic regimes throughout the Middle East and beyond. How can anyone take seriously his demand that the Palestinians create a political system based upon "tolerance and liberty" when President Bush arms and supports misogynist family dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, not to mention Israeli occupation forces that have engaged in brutal repression against Palestinian civilians?
It should be apparent that Bush’s criticisms of Arafat’s regime, however valid, are not the reason for denying the Palestinians their right to self-determination. They are simply the excuse.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project and is the author of the forthcoming book Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press.)