Palestine at the Crossroads

President George W. Bush's long-awaited speech on the Middle East combined hope for both sides with extremely tough language. The hope was clear: Israelis deserve security and a life without fear of suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism; Palestinians deserve dignity, an end to the Israeli occupation, sovereignty, and statehood.

But the toughness was reserved solely for the current Palestinian leadership: without mentioning Yasir Arafat by name, Bush clearly called for a new Palestinian leadership, one "not compromised by terrorism." The current leadership, he maintained, has not fought terrorism, but has instead encouraged and even "trafficked" in it. He condemned the Palestinian Authority's rejection of Israeli peace offers and promised US support for statehood if the Palestinians change their leadership, reiterating that "a Palestinian state will not be achieved by terrorism."

One cannot imagine a harsher condemnation of Arafat and the entire Palestinian leadership. Bush is now clearly suggesting that Arafat is not a partner for peace, that the Oslo agreements are, in effect, dead, and thus that the Palestinian Authority as constituted by them does not exist anymore. By adopting this policy, Bush is walking a fine line between Arab pressure to support the emergence of a Palestinian state and his own commitment to fight terrorism and not reward suicide bombers.

The speech was a masterful blend of the carrot and the stick. But Bush now faces two challenges--one major, the other minor--in pushing his policy forward. The major challenge is how the demand for a change in the Palestinian leadership will be met. A crucial hallmark of Palestinian society is the weakness of its institutions: civic organizations are woefully under-developed, and responsive party structures that can effectively representing social interests do not exist--except those of the armed militias, like Fatah or Hamas. As a result, elections in Palestine currently mean about as much as they did in the old Soviet Union.