Bush's Mideast U-Turn
February 11, 2008; Page A19
On June 24, 2002, President Bush presented his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. That we both would have greeted Mr. Bush's speech with the same enthusiasm may come as a surprise.
One of us is a former Soviet dissident who spent nine years in the Gulag and, after joining his people in Jerusalem, spent a decade in Israeli political life, serving as a cabinet minister during most of that time. The other is a Palestinian who has devoted his life to exposing human rights abuses perpetrated against his people, regardless of whether the government committing those abuses was Israeli or Palestinian. One is a Jew convinced of his people's just claim to the Land of Israel. The other is an Arab convinced of his people's just claim to the same land.
Yet while we have real disagreements that would make an historic compromise very difficult and painful, we are fully in agreement that the only path to peace lies in building a free Palestinian society -- a path Mr. Bush boldly laid out in his historic speech.
Unfortunately, encouraged by short-sighted Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Bush administration, now entering its final year in office, has resuscitated the failed policies of the past that have brought nothing but tragedy, terror and war and that have only pushed peace further away.
The real breakthrough of Mr. Bush's vision five-and-a-half years ago was not his call for a two-state solution or even the call for Palestinians to "choose leaders not compromised by terror." Rather, the breakthrough was in making peace conditional on a fundamental transformation of Palestinian society: "I call upon [Palestinians] to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. . . . A Palestinian state will never be created by terror -- it will be built through reform. And reform must be more than cosmetic change, or veiled attempt to preserve the status quo. True reform will require entirely new political and economic institutions, based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism."
Many critics argued at the time that linking the peace process to a transformation of Palestinian society was a radical departure in peacemaking. It was. And it was long overdue.
What had guided policymakers for the previous decade was the idea that a "moderate" Palestinian leader who would fight terror and make peace with Israel needed to be "strengthened" at all costs. Yasser Arafat was their moderate. He was given territory, weapons, money and a warm diplomatic embrace.
Completely ignored was what was happening within Palestinian society. As Arafat was hollowing out civil society, handing control of the economy to corrupt cronies, squirreling away billions of dollars into his private accounts, trampling on the rights of his own people, and using PA-controlled media and schools to indoctrinate a generation into a culture of hatred, the international community's bear hug only tightened. Indeed, Arafat's emerging dictatorship was seen as an asset in the peace process. Here was the "strong" leader, it was argued, who could make a deal. Nothing should be done to weaken him.
Mr. Bush's speech was supposed to change all this. It was supposed to shift the focus to where it should have always been: on helping Palestinians build a decent society that would protect the rights of their own people and promote peace with its neighbors. It was supposed to begin the hard work of helping Palestinians reconstruct their civil society, build a free economy, establish real courts, reform their security services, and revamp their educational system.
President Bush deserves much credit for placing a spotlight on the issues of democracy and human rights and for his firm belief that the advance of freedom is critical for international peace and stability. He made this idea a focus of his second inaugural address and reiterated it last June in Prague at a conference of dissidents from around the world. Last month, President Bush did not flinch from speaking about freedom and human rights in the heart of Arabia.
But the past few years have shown that when it comes to dealing with Israelis and Palestinians, the vital link between freedom and peace is almost entirely ignored. True, the administration is not doing anything against the wishes of the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership. But just as the Oslo peace process of the 1990s was a disaster that Israeli and Palestinian leaders wholeheartedly embraced, the current peacemaking round will prove equally disastrous because it ignores what is most important.
Rather than begin the long and difficult process to transform Palestinian society and ultimately pave the road to peace, the administration has consistently supported quick and foolish solutions: from crafting a "road map" that only paid lip service to reform; to backing a unilateral disengagement that by its nature ignored Palestinian society; to pressing for snap elections that preceded rather than followed reform and thereby brought Hamas to power.
When Arafat passed from the scene, we hoped that the Bush vision would finally be given a chance. But all that has happened is that President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) and Prime Minister Salam Fayad have become the new "moderates" who need to be strengthened at all costs. Rather than establish a clear link between support for the PA and reform, and openly embrace the genuine Palestinian reformers who are the democratic world's true allies, Abu Mazen is promised billions despite having done nothing. With the media entirely under his control, incitement continues and no one raises serious objections. He is, we are told, too "weak" to take action.
A few weeks ago, in a meeting with a high ranking official responsible for European foreign policy, one of us (Mr. Sharansky) spoke about the need to support the work of the other (Mr. Eid) in promoting democracy and human rights in the Palestinian territories. After the European leader expressed his deep commitment to peace, democracy and human rights, he asked the all important question: "What is his [Mr. Eid's] relationship to Abu Mazen?" After hearing that it was strained because of constant criticism of Abu Mazen's failure to reform, the official's enthusiasm quickly evaporated. "That will be a problem. We cannot do anything that will undermine Abu Mazen." This new-old attitude reminds one of the absurdity of those who refused to support democratic dissidents behind the Iron Curtain because they were undermining their leaders.
President Bush should spend his final year in office helping Palestinians begin the transformation of their society so that the vision he once spoke of so eloquently will have a chance to come to fruition some day. We have wasted too much time strengthening leaders and reaching for the moon. Let's start strengthening Palestinian society and begin a real peace process once and for all.
Mr. Eid is executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Mr. Sharansky is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies.
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