Middle East Success Is Last Chance for Bush Legacy
President George W Bush provided a distraction from the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan and invited Israelis and Arabs to a summit at Annapolis, Md., to resolve the age-old Palestinian issue. One wonders if the unprecedented gathering of Israeli and Arab leaders on November 27 was a glorified photo-op or just a low intensity tempest in a huge teapot.
Amidst all the usual doom and gloom there were some signs of optimism. First all the Arabs states came to the table even though some of them are allergic to the word Israel and continue to act as if Israel does not exist. They did not walkout when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke.
Another hopeful sign was the extremely candid views expressed by Mr. Olmert on his return to Israel from Annapolis. In an interview with the newspaper Harretz, the prime minister said the state of Israel is ‘finished’ if a Palestinian state is not created, saying the alternative was a South African-style apartheid struggle.
Though many Israelis have voiced those concerns it was the first time an Israeli prime minister said them in public. Mr. Olmert’s concerns validate the views expressed by the former president Jimmy Carter in his 2006 book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Others like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu of South Africa have also expressed the same concerns. Unfortunately all of them have in the past been tarred with all-too-convenient broad brush of anti-Semitism for saying the obvious.
That the Palestinians have an inherent right to their own land has in the past been dodged with arguments that range in absurdity from ‘Palestine is Jewish land because it was promised to Jews by God’ to ‘we don’t have a viable partner in negotiations’. Such sentiments leave little room for negotiations and have permeated the thinking of many Israeli politicians. Hence it is interesting that Mr Olmert makes the argument for a Palestinian state not from the Palestinian point of view but from the Jewish point of view.
The outline of a future Palestinian state is well known and understood by all parties. It roughly follows what Prince (now King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia revealed to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in 2000 and which was the basis of negotiation at the failed Camp David summit among Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and then-President Bill Clinton later that year. It involves Israel returning to 1967 borders with minor adjustments. East Arab Jerusalem would become capital of the Palestinian state.
As a follow up to the failed Camp David summit, former Israelis and Palestinian officials met unofficially in Jordan to negotiate the shape of a final settlement. In those discussions the Palestinians gave up the right of return of 3.5 to 5 million Palestinians living in Diaspora. Israelis agreed to a token acceptance of Palestinian refugees back to Israel. Though both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority disowned that report, it remains the basis for a final settlement. History tells us that at times it is pragmatic to accept half a loaf rather than waiting indefinitely for a full one.
Mr. Olmert and the majority of Israelis know that Palestinians are not going to disappear from the scene.
The wishful thinking of many hard-line Israeli and American Jews and their Christian evangelist apologists evicting all Palestinians from Palestine and push them across the Jordan River is not only impractical, it is morally abhorrent.
If and when a Palestinian state is created it will not melt away the age-old ill will and animosity between the Arabs and the Jews. It would however be a beginning towards a more stable Middle East. Israel would still be the target of many angry Arabs who would take long time to accept the new reality.
After botching up Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush needs a spectacular success to shore up his legacy. Most recent presidents have toyed with that idea but they had, unlike the current president, stayed engaged with the parties during their presidency. Keeping with his detached and hands-off approach the president told the Palestinians and Israelis to go to work and find a solution.
This may yet turn out to be a doomed last stand of a cowboy president. But if it works then he could ride into the sunset wrapped in glory.