So much for the U.S. role as honest broker

April 18, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

SAY THIS for George W. Bush: For a man who became president of the United States without a mandate, or even more votes than his opponent, he has not hesitated to change the face of the country and the world.

He has taken America to war on false pretenses and damaged historic alliances in the process. He has presided over an economic direction that has taken America from hefty surpluses to devastating deficits. He has reneged on treaty commitments. More, possibly, than any of his predecessors, he has tried to break down the separation between church and state.

And last week, with a grin on his face, standing next to the practically ecstatic figure of Israel's Prime Minister Ariel "Arik" Sharon, he struck down a fundamental policy the United States has held to in its attempt to be an "honest broker" between Israel and the Arabs. For the past 37 years, since Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the policy of the U.S. government has been that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal, and that Israel must not use the billions of dollars it receives from Washington to develop them.

Every government of Israel has ignored the U.S. position on settlements even as it continued to depend heavily on U.S. aid. When the Likud Party came to power in Israel under Menachem Begin, it did more than quietly ignore Washington; Begin openly defied the United States and began a massive settlements program that he said he hoped would result in more than a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria, as he liked to refer to the West Bank.

In order to do this, Israel seized land historically inhabited by Palestinians. It took over the water supply. It brought in soldiers to protect the settlers from Palestinians who were understandably enraged. America watched as this happened. Washington occasionally complained. But it did nothing to stop what Begin and his successors, right up to today's Sharon, always referred to as "facts on the ground."

And last week, President Bush, in an astonishing agreement, said it was OK.

Referring to the settlements as "existing major Israeli population centers," Bush said, "The realities on the ground and in the region have changed greatly over the last several decades, and any final settlement must take into account those realities."

The inducement for Bush was Sharon's promise to close down several Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, where they are far from what had been considered Israel proper until last week. People speaking for the Bush administration treated this concession by Sharon as if he had cut off his right arm for the sake of peace with the Palestinians.

One administration official briefing reporters asserted, "You guys are missing the news here. The news is that the Israeli government, headed by Ariel Sharon, has decided to pull out of Gaza and to abandon settlements -- not only on Gaza, but also on the West Bank.

"And that is an opportunity for us now to move the Palestinians, because what he's doing is opening the door for a pathway to a Palestinian state."

Thanks, Arik. Thanks for giving something back to America after all these years of taking all that money and building those settlements.

The Bush spokesman assuredly was talking about moving Palestinian minds. What many Israeli hard-liners wish is that the Palestinians would move away altogether, leave the West Bank and Gaza and assimilate into other Arab countries. Some of them wish that even the Arab citizens of Israel would move out.

Wherever the Palestinians end up, Bush has formally made it the position of the United States that none of the ones who fled their property inside Israel during the 1948 war would have the right to return to their homes; nor would their descendants. Bush sweetened the pot for Sharon by declaring those refugees should be settled in a future Palestinian state.

Sharon got more than he might have expected in return for abandoning the settlements he doesn't want to keep anyway, especially the ones in Gaza, which he had already announced he would abandon. The settlements in Gaza are in a real danger zone, surrounded by more than 1 million enraged Palestinians.

No one expected that Israel would have to give back all of the land it has occupied since 1967; nor did anyone -- including the Palestinian leadership -- expect that the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948, or their descendants, would get to return to Israel and reclaim their property. But these issues were to be negotiated between the two sides. And now that Bush has basically announced that America, the erstwhile "honest broker," has chosen sides, where's the incentive to talk?

It's too easy to say that the Palestinians have no one but themselves and their leadership to blame for how things are turning out. Yasser Arafat blew an opportunity to get a lot of the West Bank and Gaza for his people and a future state. The Islamic radicals his Palestinian Authority has failed to control have murdered hundreds of Israelis and brought down upon their own people the blistering vengeance of Israel.

People on both sides have to hope the future will be better. But Bush's astonishing action last week does not seem to look into the future. It does not encourage hope. It changes the dynamics in a dramatic way, but not a constructive way. It does not anticipate a time when he will no longer be president, and Sharon may no longer be leader of Israel, or Arafat the leader of the Palestinians.

Instead, the president of no mandate has attempted to change the map of the Mideast in a way that fits comfortably with the distorted view of the region that has led us to war in Iraq.

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