Mr. Bush, tell the Arabs it's their move

February 13, 2004|By Thomas L. Friedman

MEMO TO: All Arab leaders

From: President Bush

Dear Gents: I'm sure you've seen the news that Israel's leader, Ariel Sharon, has decided to withdraw unilaterally from most settlements in the Gaza Strip and to relocate others in the West Bank. This presents a huge opportunity and a huge risk to Israel, the Arab world and to us. We must work to shape it right.

Let's start with the risks. Don't think I'm happy about how this Sharon plan unfolded. Think about it: Last summer, the Palestinians put forward a new prime minister and security chief, Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, as moderate alternatives to Yasser Arafat - just the kind of people I wanted to work with.

I urged Mr. Sharon to be forthcoming and try to strengthen Mr. Abbas' hand, so he would have the credibility to deal with Hamas and Mr. Arafat. Mr. Sharon gave him virtually nothing on settlements or on easing Israeli checkpoints on Palestinians. On Palestinian prisoners, Mr. Abbas asked for an Israeli commitment to release large numbers of prisoners, which would have really given Mr. Abbas street credibility. Instead, Mr. Sharon released a few hundred, none of them a big-name fighter and some just criminals. So Mr. Arafat easily destroyed Mr. Abbas by portraying him as a U.S.-Israeli stooge.

Now fast-forward. The other day, Mr. Sharon did a prisoner exchange with the Lebanese Islamist terrorist group Hezbollah, which advocates wiping Israel off the map. Mr. Sharon gave it 400 Palestinian prisoners and 23 Lebanese - in return for one live Israeli and three dead bodies. The release made Hezbollah the hero of the Arab street. A few days later, Mr. Sharon announced his plan for unilaterally pulling out of Gaza - a huge boost for the Hamas Islamist terrorist group, which will get credit for driving Israel out, in exchange for nothing.

Imagine if last summer Mr. Sharon had come to me and said: "President Bush, I'm ready to tell the world that in response to America's urging, I will give Mr. Abbas the Gaza Strip, get out of almost all the settlements there and toss in hundreds of really high-value Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. In return, I expect Mr. Abbas to crack down on Hamas and maintain security in Gaza. This will be a test: Gaza first. If the Palestinian moderates prove they can control it, then we'll talk about the West Bank. If they can't, forget about it."

Had Mr. Sharon done that, he would have given a huge boost to U.S. credibility in the Arab-Muslim world, just when we needed it most, and a huge boost to Palestinian moderates.

Instead, Mr. Sharon strengthens Hezbollah and Hamas. As Israel's top military analyst, Zeev Schiff, wrote in Haaretz: "If immediately on the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as the first Palestinian prime minister ... Sharon had announced a decision in principle to evacuate most of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, and if at the same time he had released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners - [as he did] under pressure from Hezbollah - and if he had called for the resumption of talks, it is reasonable to assume the peace process would be looking very different now."

So now I come to you Arab leaders. Guys, Mr. Sharon isn't the only one who didn't lift a finger to help Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian moderates. You Arabs did nothing. But in truth, so did I. So here's what I propose to make amends: You are holding an Arab summit this March. I want you guys to invite Mr. Sharon and me to attend.

Yes, you heard me. And I want you to present Mr. Sharon, face to face, with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan, which you've already adopted as an Arab League initiative: full normalization with Israel in return for full withdrawal from the territories.

I'm tired of you guys telling me what I have to do. If you're not ready to present your own peace plan directly to an Israeli prime minister - which would electrify the whole process - then you're just frauds and I'm not going to waste time with you. But if you present your proposal - which is the only way to activate the Israeli public and redirect the Sharon initiative onto a track that will boost all the moderates and America's standing - then I'll put the full weight of the U.S. government behind it.

It's put up or shut up time, boys. Mr. Sharon, the bulldozer, is on the move. Either you act to redirect him, or we all get rolled.

Correction

My Feb. 6 column erred in saying Ariel Sharon had released no Palestinian prisoners to Mahmoud Abbas. He did. It was just too limited a release to have any impact. See above.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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