Sharon dictates and Bush follows

Don Wycliff

June 27, 2002

Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer created a stir among Israel's most ardent backers recently when she attributed to its Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a boast--"I control America"--that turned out to be apocryphal.

But if President Bush's Rose Garden address this week on Middle East policy is any indication, Sharon might just as well have said it. He could hardly have asked for more sympathetic treatment than Bush delivered.

Bush bought completely into Sharon's judgment about his nemesis, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Arafat is an unsuitable leader for his people, "compromised by terror," Bush said, and must be replaced if the Palestinians are to achieve democratic statehood, not to mention peace with Israel. (To the credit of his speechwriters, Bush said all that without ever mentioning Arafat by name.)

He defined the fundamental problem between Israel and the Palestinians as terrorism, encouraged by "Palestinian authorities." Israel's settlement-building and the continued military occupation it necessitates were not mentioned as truly significant irritants. Indeed, they were tossed off in fewer than three paragraphs of the lengthy speech. Bush demanded reforms by the Palestinian government that took this nation and other successful democracies decades, even centuries, to achieve.

And even as he sympathized that Palestinians' interests "have been held hostage to a comprehensive peace agreement that never seems to come as your lives get worse year by year," he suggested a final peace agreement might take as long as three years more--assuming the Palestinians comply with his demands for new leadership and reformed governance.

Sharon couldn't have asked for more if he had been writing the speech himself.

Fact is, there's a lot to be said for Bush's analysis of the Palestinian Authority and its shortcomings. It is famously corrupt and poorly managed, unable to deliver either reliable government services or justice.

As for Arafat, about the only thing to be said in his favor is that he has survived a long time in a tough crowd. Still, you almost get the sense that if he didn't exist, Sharon and other Israeli leaders would have to invent him. His is the face that gets put on every act of terror that occurs.

It's easier to blame Arafat than to face up to the messy and dispiriting reality described in a New York Times article last week on the changed character of Palestinian suicide bombers in recent months.

They are younger, more secular, and more desperate. The article quoted a Palestinian psychiatrist from Gaza City who said that these youths--one suspect was only 12--were motivated at least partly by a desire to compensate for the powerlessness they have witnessed as their parents endure the indignities and restrictions of the Israeli occupation.

Israel's Defense Minister, Benjamin Ben Eliezer, reportedly met separately recently with two young would-be suicide bombers: a 20-year-old woman who changed her mind at the last minute and another youth who was intercepted. According to the Times, Ben Eliezer said he found "little commonality but despair."

Will getting rid of Arafat solve that problem? And what if the Palestinians democratically choose to keep him when they hold elections next January? How will Bush and Sharon deal with that?

Bush gave his talk and then hustled off to Canada, to the meeting of the G-8 heads of state. Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien had prepared an agenda centered on Africa and how the rich nations can help it rise economically. But initially, anyway, all the talk was of the merits and demerits of Bush's Mideast plan.

Such is the skewing effect that the Middle East issue has. It's like one of those people who seem to suck up all the air in a room, leaving everyone else gasping.

So in one respect, Bush was absolutely and indisputably right: "For the sake of all humanity, things must change in the Middle East."


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