By Stan Crock
On the surface, the timing couldn't have been worse for President George W. Bush's Middle East peace speech on June 24. His Rose Garden call for Palestinian reform and new leadership came just days after suicide bombers massacred 26 Israelis within a 24-hour period. Israeli tanks had moved back into West Bank towns.
And, to some Arabs, the President fanned the flames by focusing on what Palestinians must do, with little burden on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Bush is competing with Sharon to be the most hated leader among Palestinians," says Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi.
Does that mean the latest U.S. peace effort for the region is dead? Hardly. While the Bush team is feeling its way down a new path, it will be launching a diplomatic offensive to try to bring the region back from the brink. Bush will take the first steps during the G-8 meeting in Kananaskis, Alberta, where he'll try to line up support for his proposals.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will continue his phone gabfests with Arab leaders, before ultimately flying to the region. The goal, says a senior Administration official, is to halt support for Palestinian terrorism, end terrorism elsewhere, and clamp down on inflammatory rhetoric in state-sponsored media. "We want the governments to exercise their influence to end irresponsible racial hatred and espousal of violent views toward Westerners, Americans, Israelis, and others," he declares.
U.S. ambassadors in the region will be pushing local governments on this issue, though how much response they'll get is unclear. American officials also will be trying to build support for reform of the Palestinian Authority among both Arabs and Palestinians. The Arab reaction to Bush's plan has been positive, as officials focus on the promise of a Palestinian state in three years if reforms take place. The muted response suggests behind-the-scenes diplomacy may be paying off.
Future support may depend on whether the U.S. pressures Israel to make concessions on settlements and reoccupation. "The most important thing is to get some momentum going with the Arab world and the Palestinians, and to ask the Israelis to do some buy-in as well," says another top U.S. official.
Washington will be trying to build on some encouraging trends. Talks between the U.S. and Palestinians regarding security measures are well along, as are discussions between Europeans and the Palestinians about new financial structures. Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat already has signed a law creating an independent judiciary, and he's planning elections for early next year. He's reviewing changes in a new constitution that would boost the legislature's power.
Palestinian elites have been clamoring for reform for six years. That sentiment is widely held among the Palestinian public as well. A mid-May poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy & Survey Research shows 91% of the respondents back fundamental reform of the Palestinian Authority, 89% support democracy, and 83% believe Palestinian Authority institutions are corrupt.
Moreover, Arafat's popularity is waning, with his approval rating slumping to 35%, from 46% in July, 2000, according to the survey. And the bombing of Israeli civilians is backfiring among Palestinian sympathizers abroad. The Palestinians' campaign has "discredited them," says Philip C. Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, "and played right into the hands of the Israeli right."
None of this assures that the Bush blueprint will fare any better than previous initiatives in the seemingly intractable Middle East. But his team has decided that earlier efforts, with their oft-violated timetables, empty promise of a state, and dependence on a corrupt, ineffective Palestinian Authority, were doomed to failure. Washington figures the odds of success will be boosted if the necessary state institutions are put in place first and the current leadership is ousted.
However much other nations and the Palestinians may disagree, they have few options. The Bush game plan is the only one in town.
Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Beth Belton