June 30, 2002

A Departure, but to Where?


SOMETHING seems to have gotten lost in the debate over whether President Bush's call last week for Yasir Arafat's ouster was wise or disastrous. It was the fact that Mr. Bush also apparently declared a qualitatively new Middle East policy.

In effect, the administration chucked out the longstanding tradition of browbeating Israelis and Arabs to negotiate, dangling carrots and sticks to make them reach an agreement. Gone, too, was the habit of restraining the Israeli military, and purporting to be an evenhanded broker. Instead, Mr. Bush declared that the Palestinians would have to earn a state by building a democracy, and that in the meantime, Israel had a full right to defend itself.

And, of course, Mr. Arafat had to go. That was what the initial headlines and commentaries focused on, in part because it was one of the few concrete elements in the speech.

Yet if Mr. Bush did, in fact, intend to proclaim a new American approach to the most intractable problems of American foreign policy, the dismissal of Mr. Arafat - a figure increasingly regarded as a burden even by his own people - was not the central point.

"We may have missed the forest for the trees," said Michael B. Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and author of a new book, "Six Days of War," about the 1967 Middle East war. "The trees are Arafat's ouster, and what we are missing is a huge change in American foreign policy toward the Middle East. The leader of the most powerful nation says all you have to do is elect an accountable government and stop blowing up people, and we will create a state, protect you, give you a place among nations."

Though this shift is a distinct departure from Middle East policy, it is consistent with a position Mr. Bush has evolved since Sept. 11. Whether ousting the Taliban, trying to manipulate the loya jirga or threatening Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush has made clear that the United States is prepared to change or shape regimes where they become a threat. That may not yet amount to a doctrine, and the approach is hardly at the level of the regime manipulation that was commonly practiced by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war - or by the Europeans when they were colonial powers.

And however queasy Mr. Bush's approach may make internationalists, it seems not entirely unreasonable to set a high standard for the Palestinians, since they are seeking to join the community of governments and clearly need help from Washington to do so. As for the others, the Taliban was never recognized by the United Nations, and Iraq has long been in violation of United Nations resolutions. The trouble is that Mr. Bush himself left unclear in his speech whether he was outlining a new doctrine, or whether he was even aware that he was setting a new course. Such shifts in Washington are usually accompanied by great hoopla. Mr. Bush's address, by contrast, was sandwiched between appearances in Washington and Arizona, and resembled what one Washington wit dubbed a "hit-and-run speech - hit Arafat and run from the consequences."

That, to many experts, was the real problem - that Mr. Bush had suddenly thrown out a dramatic statement without giving any hint whether he was consciously setting the United States on a new direction. "On the one hand the speech was breathtaking," said Martin S. Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution. "The president who came into office criticizing the Clinton administration for nation-building has put himself personally on the line for an unprecedented exercise in nation-building." But, he added, Mr. Bush did not explain how he would move forward.

To the considerable surprise of diplomats who had been following the preparation for the speech, everything that had been discussed in preceding weeks by Secretary of State Colin Powell and by Mr. Bush himself - an international peace conference, political incentives for the Palestinians, the Saudi initiative - was gone, without footnote or explanation.

THE public reaction from the Arabs and the Europeans - even from Mr. Arafat himself - was polite applause, largely because no one wanted to cross swords with the most influential power in the Middle East. Privately, however, diplomats confessed they were stunned and dismayed. To them, as well as to critics in the United States, the speech was an ill-conceived signal whose effect would be to rally Palestinians around Mr. Arafat, and to encourage Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to further escalate his assault on the Palestinians.

A followup trip by General Powell was now complicated because he could no longer meet with Mr. Arafat. The speech provided no yardstick for deciding when the Palestinians would meet Mr. Bush's tests - or what would happen if, in an impeccably democratic election, they reelected Mr. Arafat or chose someone Mr. Bush liked even less. Probably the sharpest criticism was that by setting stringent conditions only on the Palestinians, Mr. Bush had convinced the Palestinians that the Americans were solidly and exclusively behind their nemesis, Mr. Sharon.

Most Israelis exulted, but not all. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was said to be dismayed. "Peres believes that terrorism comes out of despair, and the president's speech intensifies Palestinian hopelessness," said Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli tabloid Yediot Ahronot who was with Mr. Peres during the speech. "When there's no time frame, just endless process, there's no incentive on the Palestinian side to negotiate seriously. It's just an excuse for American non-involvement."

Ultimately, however, the test of any political doctrine is whether it takes hold and succeeds. Whether he intended his speech to do so, Mr. Bush was on now record with a brave new approach, promising not only two states side by side, but two democratic states, with intensive American involvement in the development of the Palestinian one. If his statement lacked a road map, at least it had the advantage of a simple vision: nothing can move forward until the Palestinians attain a responsible

"It's a vision, definitely a vision," said Mr. Oren. "But how do you implement it?"

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company