Beyond Slogans

By Stephen S. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Of the Middle East, President Bush said in his State of the Union address, "We will continue to seek peace between a secure Israel and a democratic Palestine." That was all he said. It wasn't enough. He threw away a prime occasion to weave the Israeli-Arab dispute into a larger regional and strategic context. Nonetheless, an American leadership role is still there to be played. Notwithstanding the horror, the United States could yet help steer the parties to an exchange of land for peace.

These days it's common to hear hawks insisting that doves have had their day in the Mideast debate. It is said that Ehud Barak terminally discredited the Israeli (and American) pro-peace center-left by making Yasser Arafat a magnanimous offer he couldn't possibly refuse -- which he then refused. But Israel's pro-power right, and America's, have their own embarrassments. The surge of suicide bombs came, after all, on tough guy Ariel Sharon's watch. If peace went nowhere without him, it has gone nowhere with him either.

Hawks further assert that the Palestinians' terrorism has cost them support for their political grievances, and fairly so. The United Nations' Kofi Annan has pondered this count. "As the United Nations unites to defeat terrorism in the months and years ahead," he said recently in Washington, "we must act with equal determination to solve the political disputes and long-standing conflicts which generate an atmosphere conducive to support for terrorism. To do so is not to reward terrorism or its perpetrators; it is to deny them the opportunity to find refuge or recruits, in any cause, any country."

So far, however, the Bush administration has hung itself up on the narrow terrorist aspect. Bush accepts Sharon's fight against terrorism as a compelling priority and as an instrument of Sharon's basic policy of territorial expansion. What is to Palestinians the salient issue of Israel's West Bank settlements has been consigned to the mists of "eventually" -- Condoleezza Rice's word.

Bush is right to fight terrorism fiercely. But he has gone wrong in his choice of means. His way has been to ignore the inflammatory aspect of settlements and to enable Israel to extend its territorial reach in the West Bank.

The result, Israeli left oppositionist Naomi Chazan told Washington's Foundation for Middle East Peace not long ago, is the existing stalemate: "Terrorism, which Israelis fear most, is continuing, and occupation, which Palestinians fear the most, is continuing. Unfortunately, the fight against terrorism has embroiled Israel in occupation, and the fight against occupation has embroiled Palestinians in terrorism. . . . The Palestinians cannot defeat Israel militarily, and Israel cannot defeat the Palestinians politically. These are the facts of life."

To ignore these linkages is to doom any peace policy before it gets off the ground.

Labor and its assorted coalition partners taught Likud the dangerous game of unilaterally "creating facts" -- planting settlements on disputed land. Still, Labor has recently shown itself the more amenable to the alternative of combining the campaign against terrorism with the peeling back of West Bank settlements. This was the explicit promise of Amram Mitzna, the negotiation-minded retired general who led Labor in last month's elections. Terrorized by Palestinians, intimidated by Likud and abandoned by Arabs and Europeans who had said they would bring along the Palestinians, Labor's parliamentary following shrank to a historic low.

Bush's weak focus has made him an accomplice to Israeli expansionism. By making Palestinian democracy a condition for peace, moreover, he hoists an attractive banner but delays peace indefinitely. He has failed to harness either the available majority-Israeli favor or the intermittent Arab favor for a more modest but more realistic program of reform.

The majority-Israeli favor? Sharon has now won the last two elections, although governing in Israel's coalition shoals is another matter. But even while a frightened majority voted for Likud's tough leadership, polls detected a hopeful majority leaning to Labor's greater readiness to negotiate.

The Palestinians' killing wing has used suicide bombing cruelly to torment the Israeli population. But the Palestinians' truest weapon is their high birthrate. It emits a seemingly unstoppable flow of adolescents trained in murder. It impels a demography that in this decade can make Palestinians a majority and force Israel to subordinate its democratic heritage in order to rule.

If there is any validity to the Maoist belief that things have to get worse before they can get better, the Mideast is primed to go. For the pains they have inflicted and incurred under Israeli occupation, Palestinians have won nothing of value. Their friends must convince them that only by ending the terrorism can they reap their legitimate political goals.

Chazan was asked about an international peace initiative. She said that the situation in which most Israelis and Palestinians live is "almost unbearable." "Living the way we live in Israel or in Gaza and the West Bank is becoming so hard and so unacceptable that people are willing to try everything, from transfer [expulsion] to a Palestinian state." What, beyond slogans, is Bush willing to try?

The writer is a former editorial page editor of The Post.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company