For a Nonpolicy, It Sure Did Work

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POWER PLAY: Will Arafat give Abu Mazen a chance?

For months conventional wisdom on the Middle East — incessant and universal — has been that 1) the Bush Administration has neglected the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and 2) as a result, things have gone from bad to worse.

This is nonsense squared. If someone had told you at the time of the Passover massacres of 2002 (seven suicide bombings in seven days) that a year later terrorism deaths would be down more than 80%, Yasser Arafat would be edged aside, a new reformist Palestinian leadership would be approved, Palestinian finances would start to become transparent, and negotiations between the parties would become possible once again, you would have said this is utterly fanciful. But that is exactly what has happened. Why? Because of the radical new policy adopted by President Bush and enunciated last June 24.

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Bush was accused of having no policy because he refused to follow the old Clinton doctrine that had made Arafat the center of the universe (he was invited to the Clinton White House more than any other leader on the planet) and made talking an end in itself — even as the blood flowed. The nadir of this obsession with "engagement" was reached the day Madeleine Albright ran through the courtyard of a Paris chateau begging Arafat to return to a negotiation he had just walked out of.

We know what that debased and delusional policy yielded: the bloodiest bout of Palestinian-Israeli violence in history. With the region knee-deep in body parts, the Bush Administration ordered a halt to the insanity. On June 24, 2002, Bush pledged himself to a Palestinian state but told the Palestinians that they will get nothing until they give up this war, crack down on terrorism, democratize their institutions and, most important, strip Arafat of power.

This was key. Arafat is not just the man who refused to make peace with Israel — Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., has called Arafat's rejection of Israel's peace offer in 2000-01 not just "a tragedy" but "a crime"--he is the man who uses his power to make sure that no one else can make peace with Israel. By demanding new leadership, the Bush Administration was grounding future Middle East diplomacy in realism. Axiom A: Allowing Israel to fight the terrorism would reduce the terrorism. Axiom B: Shunning and thus diminishing Arafat would bring the first openings toward real peace. Both have proved true.

So much for "no policy." So much for "no progress." Bush has provided perhaps the best opportunity for peace in 35 years. But many pitfalls remain. The first is that the transition away from Arafat is incomplete. The new Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, represents hope. He is the most senior Palestinian leader to declare the intifadeh a mistake and to pledge an end to terrorism. Arafat, however, is doing everything to undermine him. He has portrayed Abu Mazen as an American stooge and is opposing the dismantling of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which just last week took credit for a massacre at a seaside cafe in Tel Aviv.

The second pitfall is the "road map for peace." Its title insists that it is "performance-based," but the text reveals a timetable that is calendar based. This repeats the mistake of the catastrophic Oslo "peace process," in which Israel acquiesced to the establishment of an Arafat mini-state, without Arafat's being held to his pledges to control weaponry, crack down on terrorism and cease anti-Israel incitement. No one wanted to halt the peace train by demanding compliance. The result was a bloody wreck.

Moreover, the road map is built on simultaneity: Israel pulls back settlements and eases security measures while the Palestinians are supposed to fight terrorism. This contradicts the President's June 24 policy that Israel must make concessions, large concessions, but only after the Palestinians have made a strategic decision to end the bloodshed.

The road map might thus produce a tactical cease-fire. But that would just provide an interval of safety for Palestinian terrorists to rearm, regroup and prepare to fight later on. Publishing the road map with Arafat still clinging to power and with Abu Mazen unproved is a bad omen. By rewarding the Palestinians before Arafat is gone and by demanding Israeli concessions while the violence continues, it belies the very premise of the June 24 policy, the only policy since Oslo that has produced real progress.