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U.S.: Bush Says Mideast Peace Requires New Palestinian Leaders

  • Jeffrey Donovan

After a string of Palestinian suicide bombings delayed his speech last week, U.S. President George W. Bush finally articulated his new vision for peace in the Middle East yesterday. As RFE/RL reports, there were a few surprises.

Washington, 25 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has laid out his vision for peace in the Middle East, calling on the Palestinians to move beyond Yasser Arafat, shun terror, and embrace democracy. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty," Bush said.

In a speech at the White House on Monday, Bush said that America would back the creation of a state for Palestinians, but only if their leadership and institutions are overhauled and they adopt new security relations with Israel. "And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions, and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state," Bush said.

Although Bush did not mention Arafat by name, the reference to the Palestinian leader was clear. And the speech put Bush as close as he has ever been to endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's position that Arafat must be sidelined because he is tainted by ties to terror and cannot be trusted as a peace partner.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Bush's call for new leaders was unacceptable. "President Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinian people and this must be respected," Erekat told CNN.

Arafat, in a statement issued by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, welcomed Bush's speech as a "serious contribution" to Mideast peace, saying the Palestinian Authority looks forward to discussing Bush's ideas with the administration. The statement did not mention Bush's call for a change in Palestinian leadership.

Bush said that Palestinian elections should be held by the end of the year for a legislature that, unlike the present one, must have real authority. He said there must also be a constitution.

Bush said the details of a provisional state, including its borders, will be left for negotiations between a reformed Palestinian leadership and Israel.

Senior Bush administration officials were quoted as saying that after full reforms by the Palestinians, the United States could be ready to back the creation of a provisional Palestinian state within 18 months. Full statehood could be three years away.

Bush also demanded that Israel withdraw to positions it held on the West Bank nearly two years ago at the beginning of the latest Palestinian uprising and to stop building homes in the West Bank and Gaza. "Permanent occupation [of Palestinian territory] threatens Israel's identity and democracy. A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for," Bush said.

Analysts, however, were quick to critique Bush's speech.

Judith Kipper co-directs the Middle East Program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said that the White House has traditionally put too much emphasis on Arafat, and that Sharon has also been an unwilling peace partner. "These are two leaders who can't govern, who haven't presented a vision for a better future for their people, and who are not going to be able to move forward without being forced to do so," Kipper said.

Kipper also took issue with the idea of a provisional state floated earlier by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. "I think it's a nonstarter. What's a provisional state? What does that mean? What's a state versus [a] provisional state? And it's one more interim measure, it's just another phrase for an interim measure," Kipper said.

Other experts wonder whether changing the Palestinian leadership would benefit the peace process.

Ted Galen Carpenter, an analyst with Washington's Cato Institute, said that recent polls show that 51 percent of Palestinians believe the goal of the nearly two-year-old intifada, or uprising, against Israel should be the "liberation of historic Palestine," that is, the destruction of Israel.

And some 68 percent of Palestinians, Carpenter said, endorse suicide bombing as a legitimate tactic. "That doesn't suggest to me a population that is going to strongly support more moderate leadership than Arafat has provided," Carpenter said.

In his speech, Bush also urged other countries to stop the flow of money, equipment, and recruits to terrorist groups seeking the destruction of Israel. He specifically mentioned Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah.

Repeating his mantra that states are either "with or against" the U.S. in its fight against terrorism, Bush also said that countries committed to Mideast peace must oppose "regimes that promote terror like Iraq."

Carpenter said that Bush's message on Iraq was aimed at moderate Arab governments that have reportedly demanded greater U.S. action on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in exchange for their support of a U.S.-led war to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "That is a message to the moderate Arab governments: If you support us on Iraq, we may push Israel a bit harder on some of these issues with regard to the establishment of a Palestinian state," Carpenter said.

Bush's speech had been anticipated for several days after being delayed by persistent Palestinian violence, including two suicide bombings in Jerusalem that killed 26 people last week.

Hours before Bush's speech, Israeli troops encircled Arafat's West Bank compound and killed six Palestinians in a helicopter missile strike. That action was part of a broad military campaign against alleged suicide bombers that Israel says will continue until all attacks have ceased.

Bush did not mention the prospect of a Middle East peace conference, which U.S. officials have said they hope to hold this summer. U.S. officials now say the situation is too volatile to arrange a conference.

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