Framework for Peace Tough on Palestinians
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 25, 2002

After months of fits and starts, President Bush yesterday distilled his Middle East policy to a simple proposition: Peace depends almost entirely on the Palestinians.

Bush made no mention of an international conference. He did not repeat his demand for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces, which shortly before Bush spoke announced they were headed into Gaza. In the plan outlined by the president, virtually any action required of the Israelis must be preceded by positive steps taken by the Palestinians.

The tough core of the speech -- intended by the administration to be a splash of cold water on the moribund peace process -- was leavened by passages equating the suffering of the Palestinian people with the terror felt by Israelis. Arab leaders could also find references to demands they have long made on Israel, perhaps one reason why the initial Arab reaction yesterday was so muted.

If Palestinians accept Bush's demands -- including electing a new leadership without Yasser Arafat -- then the president held out the promise of deep and sustained U.S. involvement in the building of a democratic state. Bush suggested the United States will determine whether the Palestinians have met the conditions he set forth, which would allow them to create a provisional state that could negotiate final boundaries with Israel.

But while Bush suggested a three-year timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state, the clock doesn't start ticking until Palestinians elect new leaders and build new political, economic and security institutions. And Bush made the creation of a Palestinian state conditional to a series of tough yardsticks that could be impossible to achieve.

In some ways, Bush's speech did not signal much of an advance beyond his Rose Garden address on April 4, which marked his first foray into Middle East peacemaking. Much of the language concerning Israel was virtually identical, and Bush offered no new ideas on how to resolve vexing "final status" issues such as borders and Jerusalem. The speech had all the hallmarks of a plan drafted by a committee of strong-willed administration officials who disagreed fiercely about key points.

But, in other ways, the speech represented a purposeful abandonment of neutrality by the administration, which now has largely adopted the stance of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Arafat is no longer relevant to the peace process, and that security and political reform must precede negotiations about a Palestinian state.

Increasingly stern administration warnings to Arafat gave way yesterday to a declaration that he must give up the reins of power. Pleas to Israel to leave Palestinian territories gave way to an acknowledgment that those territories should be given up "as we make progress towards security."

Since April 4, however, Bush has had some tough lessons in the bloody and volatile Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

For weeks last spring, Sharon all but ignored Bush's demands that Israel withdraw its forces from Palestinian lands. "He learned on April 4 that to challenge Sharon without coordinating with Sharon can be a painful experience," said Richard Murphy, a former State Department official responsible for the Middle East.

As for Arafat, the administration finally lost patience after last week's suicide bombings, in which 26 Israelis were killed in two attacks. Even before the bombings, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told the San Jose Mercury News the Palestinian Authority "is corrupt and cavorts with terror," and this "is not a basis for a Palestinian state moving forward" -- comments that drew a fierce rebuttal by Arafat.

But the president's speech was toughened after the attacks, which delayed delivery of the address by a week. "The violence did change the character of the speech," a senior administration official said.

For an administration that has long disdained nation-building, Bush laid out highly specific goals for the Palestinians -- and for U.S. involvement. Some of the goals -- such as a new constitution and elections -- are already in the works. But Bush also specified that the Palestinian parliament should be given real power and that municipal leaders should be given authority -- a not-subtle attempt to lure other Palestinian officials to support his approach.

Bush promised that the United States, along with other countries, would help write the Palestinian constitution, build legal institutions, monitor elections, fund economic development, create a banking system and build a security force to root out terrorists.

CIA Director George J. Tenet has already been working closely with the Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence agencies on a plan to overhaul the Palestinian security forces.

But the speech was silent on other issues equally important to Palestinians, which could leave the clarity of Bush's vision of a Palestinian state without Arafat unsatisfying for many Palestinians. Bush gave no hint of how he would resolve the dispute over borders, merely using general language refering to pre-1967 boundaries that each side could interpret as it wishes.

Bush was also silent on how the administration planned to follow up on this initiative. He did not lay out a negotiating process, such as an international conference, that demonstrates to the Palestinians how the process of political reform and greater security would lead to the establishment of a provisional state. Bush did not announce that he was dispatching Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region to drum up support for the plan, as he did after the April 4 speech.

Indeed, by writing Arafat out of the picture, Bush may have left Arafat no incentive to cooperate -- and Bush has yet to explain whom the United States or Israel would negotiate with in the coming months. Currently, there is no functioning Palestinian government that can stop the terrorist attacks or replace the Israeli army, and there is no leadership that has the authority or respect to negotiate with Israel.

"There's a real question of what the administration will do to make the plan more concrete," said Martin Indyk, a Brookings Institution scholar and former ambassador to Israel.

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2002 The Washington Post Company


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