Middle East leaders running out of time

April 25, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

JERUSALEM - President Bush recently lamented that in the Middle East "the future is dying." Being out here now, I can confirm that.

There is only one way to reclaim that future: It is for America to get Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat to face up to what each wants to ignore. Crown Prince Abdullah wants to ignore yesterday, Mr. Sharon wants to ignore tomorrow, and Mr. Arafat wants to ignore today.

The Saudi leader will be meeting Mr. Bush today and will no doubt want to focus on one thing - the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Saudi peace initiative. I'm glad the crown prince has put forward a peace plan. It can only help create possibilities.

But as Americans we still have some "yesterday" business to clear up with him: Namely, who were those 15 Saudi hijackers on Sept. 11 and what were the forces inside Saudi Arabia that produced them? The FBI still doesn't know. Saudi Arabia refuses to take any responsibility for its citizens. A society that won't acknowledge responsibility isn't likely to engage in self-correction - in terms of how it educates its youth and what opportunities it offers them for the future.

Think about two recent stories.

The New York Times' Education Life supplement just reported that the best-selling book in China for the past 16 months is one, in Chinese, about how to get your teen-ager into Harvard, titled Harvard Girl Liu Yiting.

In the same week, it was reported that the Saudi ambassador in London, Ghazi Algosaibi, had published a poem in Al Hayat in praise of the 18-year-old Palestinian girl who blew herself up in an Israeli supermarket, saying to her, "You died to honor God's word."

A society that makes a best-seller about how to get its teen-agers into Harvard will eventually build Harvards of its own. But leaders who glorify a teen-ager who committed suicide in a supermarket full of civilians will never build a country that can live on anything other than oil.

As for Mr. Sharon, he only wants to talk about how to crush Palestinian suicide terrorism today, but he has no apparent plans for tomorrow. I find a split mood here: After months of Israelis swallowing suicide bombs and wondering whether Jews would be able to go on living here, Israel's recent military operation has buoyed them with the feeling that they can still defend themselves.

But there is also a deep depression here, because there is also a sense, as many Israelis have commented to me, that their leader has no plan, no road map, beyond his iron fist.

Many Israelis feel Mr. Sharon is so paralyzed by his obsession with eliminating Mr. Arafat, by his commitment to colonial settlements and by his fear that any Israeli concession now would be interpreted as victory for the other side that he can't produce what most Israelis want: a practical, non-ideological solution, one that says, "Let's pull back to this line, abandon these settlements and engage the Palestinians with this proposal."

As for Mr. Arafat, he only wants to talk about yesterday, and what the Palestinians have suffered - or about tomorrow, how one day the Palestinian flag will fly over Jerusalem.

But Mr. Arafat has no plans for today, no plans for preparing his people for a historic compromise, no plans for building institutions and no diplomatic strategy for how to cash in this intifada for a peace deal with Israel.

Someone should tell the European fools who now rush to protect Mr. Arafat that when this intifada started it was directed partly at his corrupt leadership, but he redirected it all onto Israel - with Mr. Sharon's help - decimating both the Palestinian economy and the very Israeli peace camp that is the only force that can deliver Palestinians a state.

Bill Clinton said at Camp David, "We may not succeed but we're sure going to get caught trying." Mr. Bush cannot remake Prince Abdullah, Mr. Sharon or Mr. Arafat, but he can get caught trying, by speaking the truth to them and their societies - where there are still many, many people desperate to save the future from leaders who can't figure out what day it is.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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