Imagine a story from folklore in which a young man wants to marry a king’s daughter, and the king sets certain conditions before he will agree. The young man must sail through uncharted seas, explore unknown lands and then return having won a magic object from its fearsome guardian, a multi-headed hydra. In the contemporary version of such a story, one of the hydra’s heads would spit fire, another would spurt oil, a third would lecture the young man on democracy, while the fourth would sing the praises of America. This is the folklore content of George W Bush’s recent speech, for, like the king of folklore, Bush has effectively set out conditions that make any marriage impossible. Having asked the Palestinians for the political equivalent of the Holy Grail, the Palestinians are now looking around in bafflement.
According to an article in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv on 26 June, Ze’ev Hever, aka Zambish, head of the Amana Settlement Development Agency, was at Sharon’s office when the latter was looking over Bush’s speech. Hever leads a movement that is controversial even by Israeli standards, his tactics being to set up a couple of trailers on Palestinian hilltops, declare them to be Israeli settlements, and later expand outwards onto further Arab land. There is much in common between Hever and Sharon, and the two must have been ecstatic when they heard Bush’s speech. Zever’s illegal activities are apparently no longer “an impediment to peace”, as the United States called the Israeli settlements in the past. The only impediment now is the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat in particular.
That part of the speech, where Bush lectures the Palestinians and tells them how to choose their leaders, would have been the part that Hever and Sharon focused on. They would have been less interested in the American president’s comments about the need for Israel to establish peace with the Palestinians, or on working out a two-state solution. These are details to be dealt with later, once Israeli tanks have rolled across more Palestinian towns and once the Israelis have broken Palestinian steadfastness, or so the two men hope. It goes without saying that once negotiations get underway Israel will stall and place as many hurdles as it can before any peace settlement. The Palestinians, on the other hand, may be tempted to accept the US position and therefore get nowhere. Meanwhile, the Israelis continue to get what they want, leaving Palestinian aspirations to be discussed in the future, if they are discussed at all.
Bush used words such as “democracy”, “transparency” and “good governance” in his speech, rhetoric that was far-fetched, to say the least, when one considers that the Palestinians are living under Israeli occupation and that they live in a region where democracy has never developed beyond a thin veneer.
Nevertheless, writing in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot also on 26 June, Israeli commentator Sever Plotzker compared Bush’s speech to that made by then US President Ronald Reagan to the British House of Commons in 1981, in which Reagan had heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union, what he called the “evil empire”. Reagan’s remarks turned into prophecy, and in his article Plotzker writes that he hopes the same will be the case for remarks made by Bush. However, to accept this logic would be to suppose that the fate of the Palestinians is only dependent on the utterances of US presidents. Forget the analyses of academics and political commentators, forget the experience of diplomats, just hang on every word that Bush, or any other US president, utters seems to be what Plotzker is saying.
The Soviet Union did not collapse because of Reagan’s speech; rather, it collapsed owing to its inability to cope with technological progress and because of domestic contradictions between a dictatorial and corrupt bureaucracy and the interests of the nation. Similarly, Sharon’s present good fortunes are not derived from Bush’s rhetoric, but come from the lack of any effective Palestinian strategy for resistance and political action. While Bush has asked many of his allies in the region to implement measures similar to what he is expecting of the Palestinians, it is hard to believe that he has any genuine concern for democracy in the Arab world. The Palestinians are living under Israeli occupation, and while the Arabs and the Palestinians have a thousand reasons to undertake reform, all of these are more important than Bush’s wishes.
Nevertheless, Bush’s prejudices should not be used to absolve the Palestinians from self-analysis. The Palestinians need to formulate their strategy with care, and they cannot afford to mollify the Americans at the expense of their own national interests. They need to stand up to the American vision of the Middle East. The Palestinians do not need Bush to remind them of the need for administrative and political reforms, but neither can they perform cosmetic reforms just to please the Americans. By welcoming Bush’s speech, the Palestinians are confusing their international supporters, and strengthening the hands of their adversaries.
Is it the rhetoric or the content that matters in Bush’s speech? There can be little doubt that a team of top aides scripted every word of it, debating every mention of Arafat and pausing at the paragraphs referring to UN Resolution 242, the 1967 occupation, and the need to settle the thorniest issues of the two- state solution. No doubt this team of advisors went over the sequence of the speech, adjusting the paragraph sequence and arriving at a final version only after lengthy debate. Does it make sense, then, for the Palestinians to accept this concoction as if it were a court ruling?
In the speech, Bush neither presents a workable formula for peace nor a plan of action for achieving it. However, he did make an important political speech, and one that will cause considerable damage. For one thing, the speech has already provided Sharon with ample excuse for continuing his aggression against the Palestinian people, Bush simply endorsing Israel’s fictitious view that “in the beginning, there was terror…” the Israelis having to act in self-defence. Worse, Bush addressed the Arabs in the imperative, while saving a more persuasive tone for Israel.
Both the tone and the structure of the speech are in Sharon’s favour, which is why Sharon is not worried by the few sentences about Israel’s obligations tucked away at the end. When the time comes for these obligations to be addressed, the Israelis will have, or so Sharon hopes, sorted out the Palestinians and chosen the interlocutors of their choice. While certain sections of Israel’s Zionist left have tried to call attention to the final paragraphs of the speech, these have been in the main ignored, Bush even having succeeded in confusing the Israeli left, which has made the mistake of thinking that Washington is on the side of international peace movements.
It would be a sad thing if the Palestinians were to base their future strategy on Bush’s remarks. It would be a sad thing, too, if the Palestinians were to leave the matter of resistance to their impoverished young men, who end up blowing themselves to pieces. Something better has to be devised, something that amounts to a clear and cohesive strategy.
* The writer is a leading Palestinian political activist and member of the Israeli Knesset.