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Bush's proposals for the Middle East are naive

By H.D.S. Greenway, 6/28/2002

LONDON - THE FATAL FLAW heard round the world in President Bush's Middle East speech was his insistence that American support for a Palestinian state rested on the removal of leaders not to Bush's liking.

There were other disappointments: no clear timetable for a Palestinian state or for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, no ministerial conference, no dismantling of Israeli settlements. The onus was squarely on the Palestinians, leaving the Israelis a free hand. If there was any agreement between Europeans, Arabs, and Israelis, it was as Nahum Barnea wrote in Israel's largest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth: ''The mouth was President Bush's, but the hand that wrote the speech was Ariel Sharon's.''

In all, there was a naivete in Bush's proposals - ''demanding that Palestine become Sweden before it can become Palestine,'' as the liberal Guardian's Jonathan Freedland wrote. But it was the notion that the United States should dictate whom the Palestinians could elect as leaders that rankled most, causing even America's closest allies to demur. ''It is up to the Palestinians to choose their own leaders,'' said Britain's Tony Blair in his first significant break with American leadership.

The reaction across Europe was similar. ''We will not demand that Arafat or any other leader in the region is removed,'' said Denmark's Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, soon to be named to the European Union's rotating presidency. Although Europe realizes that it has a weak hand to play in the Middle East, the European experience in reducing conflict, most recently demonstrated in Northern Ireland, has been to allow each constituency to pick its own leaders.

Indeed, the president's call for ''leaders not compromised by terror'' may sound reasonable, but in the reality of a national liberation struggle, only a leader who has the mantle of having fought for Palestine's independence stands a chance of being respected by the Palestinian people. But Israel's policy of assassinations has reduced the pool of Palestinian candidates.

Not even Israel could have passed Bush's litmus test. Both former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir led terrorist organizations in Israel's struggle for independence. And, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has pointed out, there are potential candidates far more radical than Yasser Arafat waiting in the Palestinian wings.

No doubt it would be better if the Palestinian people found a leader other than the disappointing and vacillating Arafat. Palestinians across the political spectrum are bone sick of Arafat's dictatorial and corrupt ways, and the second Intifadah was in part started as an anti-Arafat protest. Were it not for outside interference, Palestinians might well have put Arafat out to pasture. But it has been Sharon's attempts to marginalize Arafat that have extended his political life, and Bush may have extended it further. No Palestinian leader capable of bringing peace and compromise can be brought to office by an Israeli-American diktat.

Only a short time ago the Bush administration seemed to realize this truth. As recently as June 10 Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the administration was ''not in line'' with Sharon's position that the United States could not work with Arafat. But Powell's more visionary approach has been silenced in favor of Sharon's desire to oust Arafat.

As Alan Philps wrote in the conservative Daily Telegraph: ''This conflict is as much about dignity as about land in Palestinian eyes, and they will not take kindly to being told who they should choose as their leader.'' Dignity, however, is not been something Sharon has been willing to give the Palestinian people. He still believes that if you ''beat them'' hard enough they will one day fall into line, and getting rid of Arafat has become an obsession.

Twenty years ago in Lebanon I watched Sharon destroy an Arab regime too weak to control events just as he has now destroyed the Palestinian Authority. He invaded Lebanese cities and towns as now he smashes up Palestinian municipalities.

Then as now he sought to install leaders who would cooperate with Israel's desires, but his chosen president, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated, and it all came to naught in sustained and blood-soaked years that brought nothing but sorrow and failure upon Israel. But Sharon continues on with bankrupt policies that will never work, and it is the tragedy of the Middle East that the American president has now driven the last nail into the coffin of the Oslo process, signing on instead to Sharon's flawed dream of continued control of the occupied territories by destroying Palestinian nationalism.

President Bush's called for ''more than a cosmetic change or a veiled attempt to preserve the status quo'' on the West Bank and Gaza. Would that his remarks had been more clearly directed toward Ariel Sharon instead of just the Palestinians.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 6/28/2002.
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