That was a fantastic speech. Quite literally,
fantastic. George Bush's address on the Middle East,
delivered outside the White House on Monday evening,
consisted, from beginning to end, of fantasy.
It bore so little relation to reality that diplomats
around the world spent yesterday shaking their heads
in disbelief, before sinking into gloom and despair.
Our own Foreign Office tried gamely to spot the odd
nugget of sense in the Bush text - but, they admitted,
it was an uphill struggle. Israelis committed to a
political resolution of the conflict were heartbroken.
Even Shimon Peres, foreign minister in Ariel Sharon's
coalition, reportedly called the speech "a fatal
mistake", warning: "A bloodbath can be expected."
The core of the president's message was that the
Palestinians must embark on a sweeping process of
internal reform before they can even think about
getting back to the negotiating table. They must
transform themselves into a democratic market economy,
free of corruption and with a separate judiciary and
legislature if they are to be considered eligible for
statehood - which, when it comes, will be merely
Shall we count the ways in which this is completely
absurd? George Bush is demanding that Palestine become
Sweden before it can become Palestine: it must be
stable, prosperous and boast constitutional
arrangements which still elude Britain - our judiciary
and legislature are not separate - let alone the Arab
world before it can become even a state-in-waiting.
This would be laughable if Palestine were in tranquil
Scandinavia. Even there it would count as putting the
cart before the horse, asking a nation to create the
institutions of a highly developed country before it
becomes a state. But this, remember, is being demanded
of the Palestinians - statebuilders with every
possible obstacle in their way.
Like the fact that they are under military occupation.
As the New York Times noted yesterday: "How the
Palestinians can be expected to carry out elections or
reform themselves while in a total lockdown by the
Israeli military remains something of a mystery."
Palestinian ministers complain they cannot visit a
village 10 minutes away; they can pass laws but not
implement them. They are Potemkin ministers, existing
on paper only. Yet now they are to build the
Switzerland of the Levant, where the streets are clean
and government functions like clockwork. This is
George in Wonderland stuff.
Monday's speech even had a touch of black comedy. The
president said the new Palestine should be taught good
governance, nominating the Arab states for the role.
Imagine it: democracy lessons from Saudi Arabia, a
masterclass in liberty from Kuwait.
But that is not the president's greatest fantasy.
Yasser Arafat must go, he says, though without naming
him. It may be refreshing to hear a US president come
clean in his conviction that he has the right to pick
other nations' leaders, but this demand exposes fully
the vacuousness of Bush's thinking.
For who does he imagine might replace Arafat? Does he
not realise that Palestinians are angry with their
leader not because he has been insufficiently
pro-American but because they see him as too moderate,
too willing to do Israel's bidding. The Palestinian
street is not clamouring for a man who will crack down
harder on Islamist militants or sing a western song
about free trade and local elections.
So if elections go ahead, here's what will happen.
Either Palestinians will deliberately defy Washington
and re-elect Arafat or they will choose someone more
hardline. Any leader who has the Israeli or US stamp
of approval will immediately be discredited as a
puppet and promptly rejected.
Also, for all his flaws, Arafat has an asset none of
his rivals can match. He is still, thanks to his long
history, Mr Palestine: his signature on a compromise
deal is the only one that could persuade his people to
accept it. By rushing his exit now, Bush is depriving
any future peace agreement of the only Palestinian who
could deliver it.
S o the president's speech shows a man unconnected to
Middle Eastern reality. But it is worse than unhinged;
it is dangerous. First, Bush has given a green light
to Sharon to continue his policy of military force
coupled with a refusal to freeze settlement building
on the West Bank. Monday's wording implied that Sharon
is only obliged to pull back from Palestinian cities
or freeze settlements once the Palestinians have
worked their way through the US wishlist. So long as
violence goes on, or Arafat remains in place, the
Israeli PM can do what he likes.
Given that the president refused to specify what the
final settlement might look like - delaying that and
other questions to later talks - he has supplied
Sharon with an incentive to get busy now, building
settlements, putting up fences and carving new
borders. If Bush had declared that the eventual
Palestinian state would be on the other side of
Israel's 1967 borders, there would be no point in
Israel trying to redraw the map. But now Sharon has
every motive to create his notorious "facts on the
There is danger on the Palestinian side too. The only
people celebrating yesterday were the Islamist
extremists of Hamas and Jihad, chiding moderate
Palestinians for ever believing that politics, rather
than violence, might bring results. Bush has not
dangled any serious carrot before the Palestinians: no
promises on Jerusalem or refugees or final borders.
Even Colin Powell's planned international conference
seems to have vanished. All Palestinians will get if
they comply with Washington's demands is a provisional
state on 42% of the West Bank. Maybe. Few will
consider that a prize worth the sacrifice of their own
leader and a national transformation.
So this new plan of Bush's is a flight of errant,
irresponsible fancy that can only fail, bringing more
bloodshed and ruin to the peoples of the Middle East
who are desperate for something better.
But it will reverberate far beyond. It will damage the
international standing of the US president and America
along with it. Muslim and Arab nations will be
antagonised by this plan of inaction, while
chancelleries from London to Moscow will realise they
are dealing with a leader who pays no lip-service to
them - or to basic reality.
This is a foreign policy failure for George Bush. If
he were a Democrat, both the Washington press corps
and Congress would already be racking it up alongside
the unextinguished threat from al-Qaida and the
continued freedom from captivity of Osama bin Laden.
Those failures, and now the guarantee of further
slaughter in the Middle East, should be prompting hard
questions about Bush and his war on terror. America
needs to snap out of its post-9/11 torpor of consensus
and realise there is a leadership problem in the US -
and his name is George Bush.
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