President Bush’s Speech

After repeated delays, on 24 June 2002 U.S. President George Bush finally delivered his speech that was supposed to set forth U.S. policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Middle East as a whole. From a Palestinian point of view, the speech fell short of what had been hoped for and what had been expected from the President.

To be sure, the speech, at the visionary level, contained elements that could be considered positive. Mr. Bush spoke of the need to end the Israeli occupation and to end Israeli settlement activities. He reiterated his vision of two States in the region – Israel and Palestine. He expressed readiness to recognize at an early stage a Palestinian State, the borders of which and certain aspects of its sovereignty would be provisional. In this regard, he also expressed readiness to actively lead towards the conclusion of a final status agreement on final borders and questions concerning Jerusalem and the plight and future of the Palestinian refugees within 3 years.

However, President Bush’s words regarding the end of the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 remained within the confines of U.N. Security Council resolution 242 (1967), without precisely defining the practical implications. Moreover, the position taken on Jerusalem and the Palestine refugees was weaker than the position expressed by Secretary of State Powell in Louisville last November. At the same time, the speech made no mention at all of the Arab peace initiative, which was based on the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah and even appeared to demand that the Arabs take a very different course. His remarks conveyed his expectation that the Arabs should develop closer ties of diplomacy and commerce with Israel as part of the movement towards a peaceful solution, rather than as a natural by-product of the achievement of a peace solution.

More importantly was the striking absence of any mechanism or road map to be followed towards the attainment of the above-mentioned vision. This absence included the sudden abandonment of the idea of an international peace conference, which had been expected to be the centerpiece of any movement forward in a peace process. Moreover, no mention was made regarding the efforts of Russia or the Quartet of the U.S., Russia, European Union (EU) and U.N., which had been providing regular follow-up of the situation.

What was much worse from a Palestinian point of view was the part of the speech related to the actual crisis situation on the ground and what should be done to remedy that situation. President Bush placed the blame and responsibility for the current quagmire squarely on the Palestinian side, stressing terrorism, rather than the occupation and illegal Israeli actions, as the source of all ills. In essence, the speech also reversed the principle of reciprocity, in which mutual and reciprocal steps are to be taken by both sides, as vested in the Mitchell Report and Tenet Plan. The speech demanded that the Palestinian side fulfill huge tasks in terms of institution building, democracy establishment and security, all while under Israeli occupation and the ongoing brute force of the Israeli military campaign. In addition, American political support and even financial assistance were made conditional on such fulfillment by the Palestinian side.

Not only is such a mission impossible, but such demands can be construed as an attempt to substitute the inalienable nature of the rights of the Palestinian people, including the right to self-determination and independence. To make matters even worse, the speech constituted gross interference with the internal affairs of the Palestinian people, including their right to choose their own leaders, with the call for a new and different Palestinian leadership.

Although this demand for the sacking of a legitimate, democratically elected leader is what caught the media headlines, the Palestinian problem with this is much broader. In this regard, there is acute Palestinian concern about what has been perceived as blanket approval in the speech for the military actions and oppressive measures being taken by Mr. Sharon and his government against the Palestinian people under the rubric of Israel’s right to defend itself.

The exact implication of all of the above remains unclear. Many think that the speech meant, in a practical way, to convey disengagement by the U.S. administration from the situation in the Middle East, at least for a while. At the same time, lip service was given to the Arab friends of the administration and the green light was given to Mr. Sharon to continue with the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and to continue nullifying any achievements made by the Oslo process and agreements.

Others see a bleaker picture when analyzing Mr. Bush’s speech, even to the point of seriously questioning the commitment of this U.S. administration to the fulfillment of the two-State solution. On the other hand, there are those that argue that Mr. Bush started by pressuring the Palestinians as the only politically feasible way to pressure the Israelis at a later stage.

The official Palestinian response to the speech of President Bush was cautious and tried at the beginning to accentuate the positive aspects. Such a position became increasingly difficult with the real meaning of the speech becoming clearer as U.S. officials repeatedly underscored the nature and intent of the speech. The reaction of the Palestinian public, however, was much clearer and firmer in its disappointment, and even rejection, of the speech, especially the part related to the Palestinian situation and leadership.

The reaction of the Israeli government was of course supportive of the speech. Further, in what constituted the first practical test of Washington policy after the speech, the Israeli occupying forces actually continued the military assaults against the Palestinian people, including what appears to be a lengthy reoccupation of Palestinian cities in the West Bank; a situation reaffirming the darkest fears of the Palestinian side.

Arab reaction to Mr. Bush’s speech was somewhat mixed. This was perhaps a reflection of the desire to avoid confrontation with the administration. But the Arab position gradually hardened, particularly in light of the positions taken by many international players, which stressed disagreement with Washington, especially on the issue of President Arafat, insisting that the Palestinian people had the right to choose their own leaders.

The lack of international support for Washington’s demands on the Palestinian side was made clear not only through statements by leaders such as Russian President Putin and French President Chirac and other European leaders, but was also reflected in the muted G-8 Summit statement. That statement referred only to the need for Palestinian reform, in what appeared to be a rebuff to the staunch position taken by President Bush.

In any case, there is a growing consensus that some serious work must be done to control the negative aspects and real damage caused by President Bush’s speech and to try to build on the few useful elements contained in the speech. As part of such efforts, Russia, the EU and the U.N. Secretary-General, as well as the Arab countries, have engaged in a process of consultations and meetings, including among the Quartet, to try to find a way forward in the aftermath of President Bush’s statement.

For the Palestinian side, the response to the speech remains one of disappointment as well as of defiance in defense of their national rights and democratic rights as a proud people struggling for their independence.