How “balanced” was Bush’s speech?

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Arab leaders have been keen to underscore that there are positive aspects in Bush’s recent speech on the Palestinian-Israeli stand-off, and that it should not be denounced out of hand, even if it does contain elements that are completely unacceptable as far as the Arabs are concerned, notably, its call for a change in the Palestinian leadership as a precondition for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Their position is based on the premise that the speech did not refer to Arafat by name. But Bush resorted to that subterfuge as a sop to the sensibilities of international parties opposed in principle to the notion of intervening to oust foreign leaders. Many Arab leaders, including Arafat himself, chose to play along, downplaying the importance of the parts of the speech they did not agree to and pointing out that, at the end of the day, the matter of who will lead the Palestinians will be determined by the outcome of the presidential elections scheduled for next January.

But when any foreign power, let alone one with America’s clout, urges a people to vote out their duly elected leaders as a condition for achieving statehood, this represents a challenge to the very foundations of world order. To admit the right of a foreign power to change the leadership of a state, or of an authority likely to become a state in the foreseeable future, is to undermine the idea of national sovereignty, of the right of peoples to self-determination, indeed, of world order itself.

True, national sovereignty is no longer as sacrosanct as it once was. True, modern technology makes it possible for advanced states to violate the sovereignty of other states with impunity, as through satellite surveillance, for example. But this does not mean that the violation of state sovereignty is now an established principle, and that any state can have the leadership of another state changed when its conduct displeases it. There are rules that determine when intervention is acceptable. Unfortunately, however, these rules are not as clear-cut as they should be and can lend themselves to different interpretations.

One of these rules is the inadmissibility of invoking national sovereignty to bar intervention in cases of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and crimes against human rights. But the ‘right’ to intervene has acquired new — and dangerous — proportions after the dramatic events of 11 September last year.

At his Camp David meeting with his American counterpart, President Mubarak proposed that a timetable be set for the establishment of a Palestinian state, even one that would not enjoy all the prerogatives of statehood at the outset, because that was the only way to give the Palestinians hope and thus create the conditions for overcoming terrorism. But in his speech Bush discarded Mubarak’s proposal, and made the declaration of Palestinian statehood conditional on the ouster of the current Palestinian leadership. The changes Arafat has already introduced to his government were dismissed as purely cosmetic; the change Bush is talking about entails the removal of Arafat, even if he is reelected in free and fair elections conducted in accordance with international specifications. There has even been talk that military force might be used to achieve that end if necessary. How can intervention along such lines be justified in any way?

What is extraordinary is that the US is giving itself the right to appoint the head of a national liberation movement. The Palestinian Authority, under siege, is required to perform as though it were a Scandinavian government running the political life of its constituents under ideal conditions. While other governments are allowed in wartime to put democracy on hold, including the United States itself, both during World War II and in its present ‘war on terror’, the Palestinian Authority is required, while the territory it is meant to be governing is under occupation, to observe standards of democracy, transparency and performance that other states in the region, whose corruption is well- documented, are allowed to flout with impunity for no other reason than that they are allies of the United States. Bush places Arafat before a fait accompli. He will not deal with him. He threatens to cut all subsidies. The best Arafat can hope for if he complies unconditionally with Bush’s conditions is to be kept on as a figurehead, with no prerogatives and no authority whatsoever.

There is evidence that Bush altered his speech quite substantially just before delivering it, moving it closer to the position of his most conservative collaborators, mainly Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Minister Donald Rumsfeld, and away from the more moderate stance adopted at the time by Colin Powell, a stance that has since hardened considerably. This turn to the right was motivated by the last two suicide bomb attacks in Israel which prompted Bush to postpone his speech for a couple of days. As usual, Arafat was accused of having engineered the suicide attacks, even though everyone knows that they could not have come at a worse time for the Palestinian leader. Then there is the report, furnished to the Bush administration by Israeli sources, which alleges that Arafat authorised a 20 thousand dollar payment to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group which has claimed responsibility for suicide bomb attacks and which is associated to Arafat’s Fatah organisation.

The issue of ousting Arafat acquired great prominence in the G-8 Summit held this week in Canada. There was a clear difference of opinion between the US president and his European partners, who expressed their reluctance to interfere in internal Palestinian affairs. Even Tony Blair, usually a staunch supporter of the US president, said the United Kingdom would go on dealing with Arafat if he is reelected. While it is too early to make any predictions on his chances of winning a fresh mandate next January, opinion polls indicate that Arafat’s popularity has risen since the US joined its voice to that of Israel in demanding his removal.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted that Arafat remained a viable dialogue partner, saying that “as long as he is president of the Palestine Authority, it will remain this way,” while French President Jacques Chirac insisted on the need to hold an early Middle East peace conference to bring peace to the region. The only jarring note came from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who said that Bush’s speech had “basically delegitimised the current Palestinian leadership, rendering pointless calls from some quarters for an international Middle East conference”. Observers claim that Berlusconi is presenting himself as a possible mediator in the Middle East crisis and offered last month to host a peace summit in Italy. He has retracted the offer because, as he put it, “events have obviously moved on since then.”

In the eyes of the Israeli far right, Bush came out unequivocally on Sharon’s side. According to Sharon’s official spokesman, the American administration has, “by bringing Arafat’s era to an end, underscored that Israel is the winner”. One Israeli observer claimed that, as he followed the speech, he noticed the many carrots offered to the Israeli side. He braced himself for the stick he believed was bound to come before the end of the speech, but it never came. However, other observers question whether in fact the American and Israeli positions are identical.

True, the Bush administration and the Sharon government agree on the need to remove Arafat; true, neither believes a peaceful settlement is possible in the foreseeable future. But that does not mean that Sharon’s vision of the future based on a long interim stage before any final status agreement can be reached on the issue of the Palestinian refugees, on Jerusalem and on the Israeli settlements, is exactly what Bush has in mind when he talks of the “provisional Palestinian state”.

Sharon does not want a Palestinian state at all and knows that once it is established, even as a provisional state, it will be difficult, not to say impossible, to change the fait accompli. That is obviously a point of contention between Bush and Sharon. Moreover, senior administration officials have said that provisional statehood could be reached within 18 months and full permanent statehood in as soon as three years. In other words, by 2005 the issue of the final borders of the Palestinian state and of its capital, Al-Quds, should be finally settled. It is doubtful that this is the span of time Sharon had in mind when he spoke of a ‘long interim stage’.

Still, he can take comfort from the fact that Bush’s speech laid most of the burden for ending the confrontation on the Palestinians, who are required to take immediate steps (such as ending terrorism) before the negotiation process can resume, while the obligations Israel will have to assume (such as freezing construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas) are only required to be implemented later on down the road. The Palestinians are bound by a strict time-limit when it comes to performing their obligations; the Israelis are not committed to observe any timetable. There is an obvious discrepancy here that cannot be explained away and that clearly operates to Israel’s advantage. The Arabs will have to work hard to eradicate the negative consequences of the lack of parity between the two sets of obligations.

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