In his much-touted, long-awaited speech on the Middle East, George W. Bush accomplished one thing: He validated the wisdom of his original impulse to have nothing to do with the Middle East. His speech demonstrated he has nothing to contribute.
He sent Palestine to its room for three years; it can come downstairs to the grown-ups' table when it has behaved in a democratic manner. That is, it is to hold an election mandated by George Bush that produces an outcome mandated by George Bush, namely, the exit of Yasser Arafat. At the same time, the leader of the free world patted Ariel Sharon on the head and told him to go on doing whatever works for him.
Bush was being Bush rather than a world statesman. He greatly admires Sharon, with his tank-like single-mindedness. Sharon refused to work with Arafat, who deservedly has few defenders, being treacherous and mercurial. Arabs may see Sharon as "the butcher of Beirut," but to Bush, he is "a man of peace," Bush's buddy in the war against terrorism. The policy the president announced, according to Post reporters Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus, was in response to new Israeli information about Arafat's endorsement of a suicide bombing that killed 26 Israelis. Palestinians have not yet grasped the fact that the hideous and odious tactic of sending young men and women out to die and take innocents with them costs them world sympathy -- and gives Sharon a rationale for further violence.
Bush seemed not to notice the fact that Sharon is in the midst of a brutal reoccupation of the West Bank. Last time, Bush had taken fierce exception to Sharon's West Bank incursions. On April 5, he declared memorably, "Enough is enough."
But now it is not enough for him to tell Sharon to cut it out. Although Bush paid lip service to the universal disapproval of Israel's occupation -- he called it "untenable" -- he had nothing else to say about it. In their own good time, the Israelis, if satisfied with Palestinian progress in democratization, may want to "respond." It's up to them.
Settlements were an afterthought as well. Bush called for an eventual end to expansion, when the Israelis get around to it. No mention was made of eliminating this greatest thorn in Palestine's side.
Understandably, Bush's remarks were greeted ecstatically by the Sharon government. "Could have been written by Ariel Sharon himself," burbled one official. Other Middle East leaders seemed in shock. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who was in Washington recently to plead for a show of White House evenhandedness -- he is beset by pro-Palestine demonstrators -- made a wishy-washy statement about the need for "clarification." He had to, observers noted, unless he wanted to level with his people and say he had been made a fool of by President Bush.
Bush's base constituency, one whose happiness he is always solicitous of, was delighted. A beaming Pat Robertson, who said he had been nervous that State Department doves would encircle and abduct the president's heart and mind, called the speech "brilliant." House Republican Whip Tom DeLay approved it wholeheartedly as well. The Christian Coalition and its allies not only rejoice in the victory of the hawks, they are counting the Jewish votes that may fall their way in the wake of the ferocious advocacy of the Israeli cause.
Democrats, tongue-tied as ever and hoping not to alienate generous Jewish contributors, had little to say. They are counting on Jewish voters to remember that on all other subjects important to them, they are totally at odds with their new best friends. Sen. John Kerry was the most critical of any in his party -- resistance to anything Bush says can be called "unpatriotic" -- bravely but politely called the Bush decree "extraordinarily lacking in depth." Even Tony Blair, the most resolute of Bush's backers, said, "It is for the Palestinians to elect their own leaders."
Yasser Arafat responded in antic vein. Noting that Bush never mentioned his name, the chairman said the president was not stalking him.
But James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, who is touring the Mideast, reports despair and devastation among moderates in both Palestine and Israeli and Arab circles. "They were looking to the U.S. to back them, and they got nothing," he says. "Bush is backing the Sharon government, which wants an Indian reservation type of governance on the West Bank, with the Palestinians all subdued and submissive."
Jim Zogby's brother, pollster John Zogby, who has a good record of calling elections, both here and abroad, flatly predicts an Arafat win in January. "They don't blame Arafat for what is happening to them. They blame Sharon."
State's most conspicuous dove, Colin Powell, when asked what Bush would do if that happened, couldn't answer the question.