Why Bush Can't Give His Mideast Speech

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Bush: Quiet for now

Three days of Palestinian attacks that have so far killed 30 Israelis may be the pretext for President Bush postponing his anticipated Mideast policy address, but they're certainly not the only reason for the delay. Even before this week's bombings, two things would have become abundantly clear to the President: First, there is no agreement among his top aides on what policy course to follow, much less among Washington's allies in the Arab world and Israel; and second, the Bush compromise proposals being floated had already been pronounced dead-on-arrival both in Israel and the Arab world. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer insisted Wednesday that President Bush would make the speech when "it can do the most good." But given what Bush reportedly intends to say, and the current dynamic in the region, that may not be soon.

The impetus for the speech came in April, when Arab and European allies pressed a reluctant Bush administration off the sidelines as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict threatened to spiral out of control. U.S.-aligned Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, warned Washington that the raging violence imperiled its long-term interests in the region, particularly the war on terrorism and the proposed campaign against Iraq. After consulting with allies, President Bush began to add comments about supporting Palestinian statehood to his denunciations of Palestinian terrorism. The State Department, Washington's Arab allies and even Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres had, it seemed, convinced Bush that there was no chance of curbing Palestinian terrorism without restoring some hope among the Palestinians that there was a peaceful route to independence. But the countervailing pressure remained strong: Bush administration hawks urged the President to refrain from pressing for political concessions to the Palestinians as long as violence persisted on the grounds that this would reward terrorism.

In his public pronouncements since April the President has tried to combine both perspectives, but they're not a comfortable mix. Demanding a political solution implies a belief that Palestinian terror attacks are a product of a political crisis that can't be resolved by military means. But as long as violence continues, advocating any political solution that accommodates Palestinian aspirations could be construed, in the hawkish framework, as rewarding terrorism. And thus far, all efforts to cool the climate of violence and create a bridge between the security and political dimensions of a solution have proved ineffective.

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The resulting mixed messages from Washington have flummoxed nearly everyone involved. The pitch to the Arabs was that the Bush administration wants to move decisively toward a political solution via the creation of a Palestinian state based on some modified version of the 1967 borders and that it expects the help of the moderate Arab regimes in delivering Palestinian reform and a clampdown on violence. But the message to the Israelis has been that security comes first, and Sharon's demands for an end to violence and for PA reforms (in his mind, meaning the ouster of Arafat) are preconditions for any progress.

After Secretary of State Colin Powell's April trip to the region, the U.S. had hoped by this month to have convened a regional conference to promote a new peace. But that plan has been shelved — there is simply insufficient common ground between the Sharon government and all of the Arab moderates on the fundamentals of a two-state peace plan. They remain poles apart on the issues of the 1967 borders, the settlements, the refugees and the fate of Jerusalem.

Part of the reason for the anticipation of Bush's now delayed speech was that moderate Arabs and other mediators have been waiting for Washington to firm up its own vision of two states living side by side. But that would force the Bush administration to disappoint Sharon and his considerable entourage on Capitol Hill, or else to disappoint the Arab moderates on whose support the U.S. must rely in its war on terrorism. Or, more likely, to disappoint both.

The compromise proposal: a "provisional" Palestinian state without defined borders to be established in the coming months, providing the Palestinians meet strict security and reform benchmarks (a killer proviso, in the minds of many observers). And all the tough questions, such as Jerusalem, refugees, settlers and future borders would be left for negotiations between Israel and the new entity over a three-year time frame. In other words, Oslo II but the Palestinian entity is called a "provisional state" rather than an "authority." No wonder the proposal has raised scant enthusiasm on either side of the divide. The Palestinians and Arab moderates want the long-term framework of a solution to be articulated now, and the parties to be moved swiftly towards realizing it. And the Israelis insist that to even talk of a Palestinian state and a long-term political solution is inappropriate right now. So administration officials have been finessing the speech in order to create, as one U.S. official put it to the New York Times, a document from which "everyone will ... come away with a different sense. The Israelis will not be offended, and the Arabs will see something in it."

But as some Israeli commentators have warned, such a differential in expectations was precisely the problem with Oslo — and is likely to be a recipe for further violence in the long term. The cool response may have discouraged the Bush administration from going public just yet. That, and the extent to which his "vision" is challenged by the events on the ground, which would only beg the question of what political capital the Bush administration may be willing to risk in order to realize its policy. A speech that was conceived, originally, as a vehicle to clarify the Bush administration's Mideast policy may be increasingly trapped in a mire of fudging. But the crisis demanded clarity of the administration in the first place is showing no signs of easing.