Yesterday's headlines would lead one to believe that President George W. Bush was about to stop playing golf and watching westerns, and was going to let the Iraq crisis ride in order to throw himself energetically into dealing with the Israeli occupation of the territories. Here, we were told, President Bush had promised Prime Minister Tony Blair to do everything to promote the establishment of a Palestinian state; there, that the U.S. administration was demanding that Israel permit East Jerusalem's Arabs to vote in the upcoming Palestinian Authority elections.
If this is so, why do those news stories report a "cool" response in the Prime Minister's Bureau?
It is hard to believe that the death of Yasser Arafat has transformed Ariel Sharon from the father of unilateral disengagement from Gaza into a believer in a permanent settlement in the West Bank and Jerusalem. It is more likely that Sharon learned from Bush's vision of June 2000 that the establishment of a Palestinian state is a distant vision indeed.
In light of the passivity the U.S. has evinced in our area, the burden of proof concerning the fact that our place on Bush's agenda has changed, is on the U.S. president. The attitude of the U.S. to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be determined to a great extent by whether Arafat's death does open a new era in the region.
The perpetuation of a policy of paying lip service to the Arabs and to Europe, as in the case of the much-maligned U.S. road map plan, will join statements like "a new era" on the garbage heap of eulogistic cliches.
International legitimacy, which Arafat lost four years ago, is the most significant asset offered by those claiming to inherit the place of the admired leader. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) cannot offer to the Palestinian street Arafat's charisma and passion.
If the verbal support of Bush and Blair is not translated into real involvement in the political process, the Palestinian public will seek out leaders with solutions that will inspire a longing for Arafat.
Another photograph of Abu Mazen in the White House will not help Fatah candidates come out ahead of their Hamas opponents. The Palestinians learned that shaking hands with Bush did not get members of the pragmatic circles anywhere, and did not help pressure Sharon into dismantling even one checkpoint. The Americans must strike at the root of the crisis in the territories, and at the danger that the closing of the new window will deepen it further.
Seekers of peace among the Palestinians (and the Israelis) will believe Bush is not leading them on with empty words if he appoints a senior emissary (for example, former secretary of state James Baker) to prepare the groundwork for renewed negotiations on a final status settlement. The very existence of open contact with the Americans will help rebuild the status of the Palestinians as partners instead of suspects. The residents of the territories will understand that Sharon has stopped being judge, jury and executioner with regard to Palestinian efforts to fight terror - if Bush sends a special team to advise the Palestinians on security and coordinate between them and the Israelis. The participation of Europe and the UN, which cannot exactly be perceived as siding with the Israelis, in diplomatic and security processes, can serve as yet another important sign of change.
In order to convince the young men of the Tanzim to lay down their arms and win the elections, Abu Mazen and Abu Ala must provide a "political horizon." The key was and still is in the door that slammed shut when Bill Clinton left the White House. When Bush sought to help Sharon win on the disengagement issue, he omitted from the Clinton plan of December 2000, on purpose or by accident, the June 4, 1967 lines. If Bush wants to help Abu Mazen win the elections, he should find an opportunity to balance his recognition of the "demographic reality" (the blocs of settlement) with support for the principle of exchanging territory.
Even the excuses that use of the two-state vision will bring down the right-wing coalition in Israel and that dismantling of the settlements will bring about "civil war" have been shelved thanks to disengagement.
In his death, Arafat has given Bush a rare opportunity to prove to the Arab world that the vision of democracy for the Middle East is not a code-name for the lust for power, oil, small-minded local politics or just plain laziness.
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