George Bush Junior gave up last week. After all the blustering and grovelling and the disobeyed instructions to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and all the hectoring of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and all the “visions” of a Palestinian state, the President threw in his hand. There will be no Middle East peace conference in the near future, no serious attempt to halt the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, not a whimper of resolution on the region’s tragedy from the man who started the “war for civilisation”, the “war on terror”, the “endless war” and, most recently, the “titanic war on terror”. Mr Bush, his ever more incomprehensible spokesman Ari Fleischer vouchsafed to us last week, “has come to some conclusions”. And â€“ this really took the biscuit â€“ “when the President determines the time is right, he will share it”.
I love the idea of this increasingly incompetent strategist on Middle East affairs quietly weighing, like Frederick the Great, the odds on the rights of three million Palestinian refugees to return, the future of Jerusalem, and the continued growth of settlements for Jews on occupied land â€“ only to decide that these weighty matters of state must be withheld from his loyal people. After lecturing the pompous and pathetic Arafat on his duties to protect Israel it only took an Israeli shell fired into a crowded Palestinian market â€“ another of those famous Israeli “errors” â€“ to shut Bush up again. Just a week ago, as we all know, Mr Bush had another of his famous “visions”. They started in the autumn of last year when he had a vision of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. This particular vision coincided quite by chance, of course, with his efforts to keep the Arab states quiescent while America bombed the poorest and most ruined Muslim country in the world. Then this dream was forgotten for a few months until, earlier this year, Vice President Dick Cheney toured the Middle East to drum up Arab support for another war on Iraq. The Arabs tried to tell Cheney that there was already a rather dramatic little war going on in the region. And what happened? George Bush suddenly had his vision thing again.
Now, however, after six visits to the United States by Ariel Sharon â€“ and after Bush was totally ignored by the Israelis when he demanded an immediate end to the West Bank invasion and an end to the siege of Palestinian towns â€“ the President has had yet another vision, a rather scaled-down version of the earlier one. Now he dreams of an interim Palestinian state. It is a sign of how obedient American journalists have become that not one US newspaper has seen this for the preposterous notion it really is. The great American newspapers â€“ I’m talking about their physical bulk not their contents â€“ tiresomely pontificate on the divisions within the American administration on the Middle East. Or they ask whether there’s a Middle East policy at all: there is not, of course. But the ideas of this US administration, however vacuous or simply laughable, continue to be treated with an almost sacred quality in the American press and on television.
What on earth, for example, does interim mean? I noticed that in the past four days, interim has turned into provisional, an even more miserable version of the original vision. It reminds me of Madeleine Albright’s truly wonderful proposal that the Palestinians should be happy because they might get “a sort of sovereignty” over some areas of Arab east Jerusalem.
But what does interim portend? Talal Salman, the editor of the Beirut daily As Safir, wrote in his newspaper last week that interim envisages “a provisional state on territory segmented like beehives”, with every town, village and refugee camp cut off by “a wall of tanks and permanent and moving checkpoints; with everything under helicopter surveillance … with death squads monitoring intentions and dreams, targeting anyone they discover, determine, speculate or suspect may have explosive materials in their blood”.
A provisional state is an innovation no one has ever heard of before. It’s a state unrelated to its land or to its people. All other states are permanent. But the Palestinian state will be a stop-gap, according to President Bush, and thus its role or existence can be ended in a day or a year if its usefulness comes to an end. It does not need to find territory â€“ after all, it is only interim â€“ and permanent institutions such as an army (perish the thought), the luxury of independence, or sovereignty, or an economy, or foreign relations will be denied. This will be Israel’s luxury.
And in the absence of leadership from President Bush, Ariel Sharon can do what he wishes. He can dig ditches and lay down so much barbed wire that a map of the West Bank will portray a land covered in blisters; a smallpox of settlements and surrounded villages. Crazy ideas blow through Washington. Israelis can discuss in all seriousness the eviction of the entire Palestinian population. Now Nathan Lewin, a prominent Washington attorney and Jewish communal leader, is calling for the execution of family members of suicide bombers.
His exact words are as follows: “If executing some suicide-bomber families saves the lives of even an equal number of potential civilian victims, the exchange is, I believe, ethically permissible. It is a policy born of necessity.” Forgetting for a moment the logic of this rubbish â€“ if the suicide bomber has already killed himself, knocking off granny and the kids is not going to have much effect â€“ it raises some intriguing questions. Who should be the first to die in the family of suicide bombers? If the bomber has three children, how many of them do you kill? The youngest or the oldest? Or the whole lot? Is there a minimum age for execution? Is five years old enough to be put before an Israeli execution squad? It would certainly be hard, even for Mr Lewin, to explain to a three-month-old baby why it had to be put to death. Or would it be only men? Or just wives and older sisters?
Merely by asking these questions, it is possible to demonstrate the obscene depths to which this terrible war has sunk. To their great credit, prominent members of the American Jewish community have condemned Lewin’s fantasies. And it is necessary to reflect that the Palestinian suicide bombers don’t even ask these questions. For the suicide bombers are executioners, the executioners of whole Israeli families. The immolation of their own lives does not excuse the fact that, in their last moments, they are able to see the Israeli child in the pram who will die with its mother, the Israeli family eating its pizzas on a hot Wednesday afternoon, the old folk celebrating a Jewish religious festival who will be his or her victims. The 17-year-old Palestinian girl who blew herself up to kill a 16-year-old Israeli girl remains an awesome symbol of youth destroying youth.
And amid these horrors, what do we get from Mr Bush? Delay. Obfuscation. A vague plan â€“ revealed as usual to the pliant New York Times â€“ suggested that the Bush boys and girls were going to ignore the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, dump the “final status” issues of Jerusalem and settlements on the Israelis and Palestinians and â€“ by far the most hilarious clause â€“ would “find new language” to bridge Israel’s and Palestine’s interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242. This is the all-important resolution, of course, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war in return for the security of all states in the area. The Israelis claim that they can keep what land they want because the resolution does not place the word “the” before the word “territories” â€“ even though the same UN resolution specifically says that land cannot be acquired through military conquest.
It is somehow fitting as the Israeli-Palestinian war turns incandescent that this weak and vacillating President should consume his time with a debate on the meaning of the definite article. Should “the” read “some”? Should Palestine be provisional? Or should Mr Bush be just an interim President?