George Bush’s much-anticipated speech on how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, weighed in at 1,867 words. By my count, more than one thousand words were devoted to criticizing and making demands of the Palestinians, while just 137 words dealt with what Israel should do. And if you look for any criticism at all of Israel, you will not find it. The few remaining words were taken up with cliches and platitudes.
The content of few statements can have been leaked in advance as much as this one, and yet Bush’s pronouncement still managed to surprise by its sheer breathtaking unfairness and unwillingness to address a reality which is clearly perceived by the rest of the world.
The speech was so pro-Israeli that Jerusalem Post reporter David Horowitz told National Public Radio that the Sharon government may feel they could have written it themselves. Bush has entirely accepted the Israeli view that “terror” alone is what is fuelling the conflict, and defined all Israeli violence as self-defense.
As expected, it is up to the Palestinians to “reform” themselves before any demands, no matter how mild, are made of Israel. Bush declared: “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts.”
Bush’s apparent call on the Palestinians to get rid of Yasir Arafat immediately grabbed the headlines. But this call, just as Israel has re-re-re-invaded almost every Palestinian city, once more placed Arafat under house arrest and announced “massive action” imminently in the Gaza Strip, may actually serve as a green light to Sharon to kill or expel Arafat. Sharon whose popularity is flagging as he has failed to bring security through repression may now feel emboldened to make the move against Arafat that many in Israel are demanding. This would only increase the chaos and violence. On the other hand, now that Bush has openly identified Arafat as the obstacle to progress, Sharon may well do all he can to preserve Arafat in hale and vigorous health.
Arafat, demonstrating how incoherent and detached from reality he has become, reacted to Bush’s speech by calling it a “serious contribution to the Middle East peace process.” Such a declaration deserves at best pity for a man whose faculties are clearly failing him, but is more likely to generate among Palestinians only anger, derision and contempt.
Bush’s message amounts to a demand that the Palestinians must under the totalistic conditions of military occupation develop all the institutions of a fully independent, democratic state and a fully functioning democracy. Yet, while demanding democracy from the Palestinians, Bush is not shy to tell them in advance whom they cannot have as their leaders.
What will be the Palestinians’ reward for achieving this impossible task? Not independence, but according to Bush “the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East.”
Hussein Ibish originally pointed out in The Los Angeles Times that “interim independence and partial sovereignty make as much sense politically as a woman being somewhat pregnant. Independence and sovereignty are either fully realized or meaningless.” (June 20, 2002) Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Shaath has since repeated this analogy on CNN.
Bush complained that “Today, the elected Palestinian legislature has no authority, and power is concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few.” He observed—correctly—“The Palestinian parliament should have the full authority of a legislative body.” What he left out is that it was the Oslo Accords, signed with the full blessing of the United States that explicitly limited the powers of the Palestinian legislature and gave the Israeli military authorities the right to annul any law passed by it.
Bush worried that “Today, the Palestinian people lack effective courts of law and have no means to defend and vindicate their rights.” Yet he failed to mention that the very worst abuses were carried out by the infamous “State Security Court” established with the full approval of the United States and blessed in person by then Vice President Al Gore when he visited Jericho in 1994. Since then the Palestinian security services have arrested people and violated their human rights not merely with the acquiescence of the United States, but with the active encouragement, training and supervision of the CIA. Palestinian courts have no jurisdiction at all over the Israeli settlers living on confiscated land, and so even reformed will not provide Palestinians with “means to defend and vindicate their rights.” This is the difference between real independence and ‘provisional’ independence. And it is this lack of real means to defend their rights that leads many to conclude that the only means available is violence.
On the issue of violence, Bush made it very clear that only the Palestinians must renounce it. Israel was given a free hand to “continue to defend herself.” Palestinians are required to stop “terror” immediately, but Bush only called on Israel to withdraw its forces to the positions held prior to September 28, 2000 and to stop settlement construction in the occupied territories, “as we make progress.” This is essentially a license for Israel to carry on with aggressive violence unilaterally, since the settlement building enterprise is based solely on violence—the violent expropriation of Palestinian land, the violent demolition of Palestinian homes„ and the violent suppression of any Palestinian who tries to get in the way of this relentless colonization—which Sharon has openly declared will continue until he can bring a million more Jews to settle all of “Judea and Samaria.”
Forty years ago, Frantz Fanon explained that between the colonizer and the colonized native “it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression…. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. The intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with the clear conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native.” (“The Wretched of the Earth,” chapter 1)
So it is now with the “clear conscience of the upholder of the peace” that Bush is effectively inviting Sharon to accelerate the settlement enterprise until there is “progress.” Since the violence and despair that the settlements generate can only bring the opposite of progress towards security and peace, it is an open invitation.
When Bush speaks about Israeli “occupation”—it is merely a word, an abstraction. It is not a system of foreign military dictatorship over millions of people which is the very antithesis of every democratic value Bush claims to stand for and which invades every transaction of daily life. First and foremost he views it not as a condition affecting the Palestinians but as something to that harms Israelis, because “permanent occupation threatens Israel’s identity and democracy.”
Bush clearly views the Palestinians as being the direct cause of Israeli suffering: ” I can understand the deep anger and anguish of the Israeli people. You’ve lived too long with fear and funerals, having to avoid markets and public transportation, and forced to put armed guards in kindergarten classrooms. The Palestinian Authority has rejected your offer at hand, and trafficked with terrorists. You have a right to a normal life; you have a right to security; and I deeply believe that you need a reformed, responsible Palestinian partner to achieve that security.”
But as for the Palestinians—dispossessed of their country and freedom for fifty-four years—Israel has no culpability at all: “I can understand the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people. For decades you’ve been treated as pawns in the Middle East conflict. Your interests have been held hostage to a comprehensive peace agreement that never seems to come, as your lives get worse year by year.”
That is all Bush has to say. It is as if the Palestinians, due to a bit of rotten luck, have caught a cold. Yet if one reads carefully, it seems that if anyone is responsible for the Palestinians plight it is those who have “treated them as pawns.” This is usually a code word for other Arab states. Indeed, Bush places the Palestinians’ relationship with Israel on the same plane as their relations with other Arabs, as if the two can be compared, as if Israel is just another one of many countries with which the Palestinians can’t get along. Why then does Bush declare that after the Palestinians meet his impossible demands for a fully functioning democracy “they will be able to reach agreement with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence.”? Later he affirms that the ‘provisional’ Palestinian state “could rise rapidly, as it comes to terms with Israel, Egypt and Jordan on practical issues, such as security.” All of this is an effort to wipe away any of the unique historic responsibility Israel has for the conflict as well as being an effort to try to co-opt “moderate” Arab leaders to Bush’s “vision.”
Is there anything hopeful in this speech? I cannot find anything unless it is Bush’s call—eventually—for an independent Palestinian state and an Israeli withdrawal. But there is nothing new even in this, and his latest statement does not even go as far as US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech in Louisville, Kentucky last November or Bush’s own Rose Garden declaration last April. The notions of true independence and a real end to the occupation are so thoroughly undermined by the conditions attached and the full backing given to an Israeli government that openly opposes these goals as to be utterly meaningless.
In the final analysis, Bush’s speech having failed to offer the only thing that can at this point stop the spiral towards disaster—a clear timetable, guaranteed by the international community to end the Israeli occupation and return to political negotiations,—may only make things worse. Israel’s far-right government will be emboldened that its patient strategy of pushing its aggression further step by step and weathering the periodic gusts of American and international criticism has paid off with a full US endorsement of its current policies. We can expect an acceleration of Israeli violence and settlement activity with predictably disastrous results. On the Palestinian side—among those who could distract themselves from the task of survival long enough to care what Bush has to say—his speech will only increase despair, and may bolster support for those who have argued that the international intervention Palestinians have been waiting and working for for more than fifty years will never come, and only by continuing to take the fight directly to the Israelis can Palestinians free themselves.
The future for Palestinians and Israelis is as grim as it has ever been. What Bush has offered is not a formula for provisional or any other kind of Palestinian statehood, but a vision of permanent war.
Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and a well-known media analyst, Abunimah regularly writes public letters to the media, coordinates campaigns, and appears on a variety of national and international news programs as a commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the founders of The Electronic Intifada. Ali Abunimah contributed to “The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid” (Verso Books, 2001).