- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

I have been reading and re-reading the text of President Bush's Middle East speech delivered earlier this week from the Rose Garden. It is an intriguing, ambiguous document. Like so many of his speeches, it is really two speeches in one.

The first half, like the New Testament, is filled with love and hope and gentleness. But the tail of his speech is very Old Testament: It bristles and snarls and threatens hard judgments. The last paragraph peroration reads in full: "This moment is both an opportunity and a test for all parties in the Middle East: an opportunity to lay the foundations for future peace; a test to show who is serious about peace and who is not. The choice here is stark and simple. The Bible says: 'I have set before you life and death; therefore choose life.' The time has arrived for everyone in this conflict to choose peace and hope and life."

Left unstated is what happens if either party doesn't make the "right" choice (after all, the Bible is filled with stories of people who didn't take His advice). Then, I suppose, they will get war and despair and death. But the president doesn't say who will be the agent to deliver war and despair and death, should the wrong choice be made. Is it God, the United States, or will they do it to themselves?

As this speech mainly tells the Palestinian people to be well on their way to a functioning, incorrupt liberal democracy "with entirely new political and economic institutions" and a new constitution "which separates the powers of government" within three years, the implication is that if they fail to do that they will not have made the "right" choice. What happens after three years? Does the United States abandon its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East? Do we give Israel the green light to make a Carthaginian Peace? Or, more likely, do we then give them another 18 months?

This speech puzzles me. If it is meant as a practical series of steps to peace and the long-hoped-for Palestinian state, it is unlikely to be useful, because although it sounds reasonable, its details are unrealistic. In his opening paragraph, the president states that "the hatred of a few holds the hopes of many hostage."

But both polling and on-the-ground assessments suggest that it is not a few. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of Palestinians support the terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Yasser Arafat, also a world-class hater, likewise has the support of about half the Palestinians. A clear majority of Palestinians are in a fighting mood. Terrorism is no longer a splinter activity; it is mainstream policy of the Palestinian people.

On the other side, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who, while absolutely not a terrorist, is certainly an aggressive leader with no love lost for Mr. Arafat, Hamas and the rest of the popular Palestinian leaders holds Israeli public-approval levels above 70 percent. So, it would seem on both sides most people are ready for war, before what they would consider an imperfect peace.

In the third paragraph of his speech the president makes explicit what the precondition for success probably will require: "If all parties will break with the past and set out on a new path, we can overcome the darkness with the light of hope."

But that has been exactly the problem for the past 80 years (2,000 years?). The Arabs and the Jews do little more than remember the past and stubbornly, murderously attempt to re-create their version of ancient history in the disputed present. If the president's plan relies on "all parties" forswearing the past, it is doomed from the start.

Even we forward-looking Americans do not easily discard our received history and beliefs. Republicans and Democrats annually fight to the political death over whether capital-gains tax cuts are useful or not. And we are asking the Palestinians and Israelis to forget what they each believe is their biblical and historic legacy? We are expecting both of them to forget the anguish, fury and hatred that flows from uncountable outrages and butcheries?

But buried in this speech is a vital declarative sentence: "And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure." There is the ice-cold reality at the center of this confectionary speech. As there is no Palestinian will to end terrorism, there is to be no peace in our time.

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