- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

Few speeches in recent memory have been so extensively analyzed, discussed and dissected as President Bush's on the Middle East. Its reception was, on the whole, positive. Even the Europeans, the Russians and the U.N. Secretary General who last week joined Secretary of State Colin Powell in a meeting of the "quartet" although at first somewhat less than enthusiastic, have come to recognize, though not yet publicly, the obstructiveness of Yasser Arafat's role in the peace process. So, apparently, have Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Most Israelis, though perhaps not happy with the term "occupation" employed in the speech or with equating "Israeli citizens who live in terror" with "Palestinians who live in squalor," felt their position that ending terror and changing the Palestinian leadership must precede any possible moves on the political track had been vindicated. As former peace mediator Dennis Ross put it, the central message in the speech was that the Palestinians "are not entitled to a state they must earn it." Only the Israeli left, not surprisingly, was put off by Mr. Bush's refusal to buy the used goods of "Oslo" and Camp David.

The president wisely didn't call his speech a "plan" knowing full well that precise plans launched from abroad have little chance of succeeding. It was rather an outline of goals and visions drawing a road map with not a few signposts and possible roadblocks on the way. If everything goes well, the last stop to be reached in three years (not a very long time in Middle East terms) would be a final- status agreement leading to Palestinian statehood. In the meantime, provided all the designated reforms, including the change in the leadership, will be accomplished, there would be a provisional state of Palestine "whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East." Arguably, sovereignty by any other name is still sovereignty and though international law knows a few isolated cases of "limited" sovereignty none of them remotely resemble the volatile situation in the Middle East. In other words, one would have to ascertain that the planned limitations on Palestinian sovereignty (e.g., in security matters) apply not only to the interim or provisional state, but, more importantly, also to the permanent status of the future Palestinian entity.

I have already referred to the perhaps unrealistic brevity of the proposed three-year timeline leading to Palestinian statehood. But in any case, it should be clear that the above target date will remain hypothetical unless the preconditions clearly set out in the president's speech are met. In other words, the clock isn't ticking yet, and the countdown to Palestinian statehood isn't about to start until there is an absolute end to terror and violence, including the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure and a new and changed Palestinian leadership takes over.

Many political observers, including some on both sides of the political divide in Israel and the United States, see the eventual creation of a Palestinian state as a given whether desirable or inevitable. But history has taught us, often disastrously, that some things considered inevitable at the time turned out in retrospect to be far from desirable; the Russian Revolution is a case in point. Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran or Fidel Castro in Cuba are others. Though Mr. Bush's vision is one of a "democratic, stable, peaceful, viable and credible" Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel like Canada bordering on the United States there is always the possibility, some would say the probability, that a future Palestinian state, right there in Israel's backyard, would turn out to be another brutal, corrupt, undemocratic rogue state like so many others in the Arab Middle East. Nowhere more than in the Middle East is there often an unbridgeable gulf between a vision and an idea which has to stand up to scrutiny in the cold light of day.

Potentially no less problematic may be the very term "viable" as applied to a future Palestinian state considering its inherent economic, geographic and demographic constraints. Also, for a number of political and cultural reasons, Palestinian society, especially its leadership, has never been able to constitute well-functioning institutions of any sort not under the British mandate and not after "Oslo." This is contrary to the Zionist movement which under far worse initial conditions, successfully created a virtual "state-within-a-state" long before actually achieving independence in 1948. Perhaps this is so because, until quite recently, most Arabs living in the country quite simply didn't see themselves as a people apart. Or maybe, as the recently U.N.-sponsored "Arab Human Development Report" makes clear, not even the existing Arab states, whether Islamist or secular, have been able to become part of the modern world. This is in spite of the fact that, objectively speaking, there should have been no barrier to better Arab performance were it not for the "lamentable shortage of three essentials: freedom, knowledge and woman power." All the above, unfortunately, apply in varying degree also to Palestinian society. If the situation is not completely bleak, it may paradoxically be because of the Palestinians' proximity to Israel, i.e. the fact that in spite of the ongoing conflict and all that it entails, a younger generation of Palestinians has come to abhor its own corrupt and inefficient ex-Tunis-based leadership, hoping eventually to create amongst their own people something much more akin to Israeli democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press, human rights, etc. Thus, if there is a glimmer of hope, slight as it may be, it must come, as Professor Fouad Ajami says, from the fact that while Palestinians must know "that the failure that has stalked their history is upon them again" they are now "being given an opportunity to build a normal political order free of deadly legends, knowing of the things that can and cannot be had in this world of nations."

Be this as it may, nothing is engraved in stone at this stage. It is still too early to predict in which direction and at what pace matters, including Palestinian self-governance, will ultimately move. A great deal may actually depend on developments extraneous to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict such as America's plans with regards to Iraq, or the overall U.S. strategy in its war on terror. In any case, Israel's military strength, the fortitude of its society and its close ties with the American people and government will remain the ultimate and indispensable guarantee for peace and stability in the region.

Mr. Bush has clearly delineated his vision, but only time will tell if the Palestinians will prove Jonathan Swift's definition of visions as "the art of seeing things invisible," right or wrong.

Zalman Shoval is a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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