Politics & Policy

Promised Land

The president and the Middle East, post-9/11.

It is … really quite a stunning turnabout of history that George W. Bush should have emerged as one of the staunchest friends of Israel ever to occupy the Oval Office — not (as the paranoiacs of Europe and the Middle East believe) because of the Jews, but almost entirely despite them.

On October 2, 2001, the same day that Palestinian gunmen burst into a settlement in the Gaza Strip, randomly shooting civilian residents and killing a young courting couple, President Bush announced his personal support for a Palestinian state. “The idea of a Palestinian state has always been a part of a vision so long as the right to an Israeli state is respected. . . . I fully understand that progress is made in centimeters in the Middle East. And I believe we’re making some progress.” Two weeks later, Tony Blair invited Yasser Arafat to 10 Downing Street, and stepped out to announce that Britain too now supported the prompt creation of a state for Arafat.

It seemed as if September 11 had changed nothing about the peace process. But it had — it had changed everything.

On October 17, four members of Arafat’s personal entourage entered a Jerusalem hotel and assassinated an Israeli cabinet minister after breakfast. Israel demanded that Arafat surrender the killers. When he did not, Israel accused the Palestinian Authority of being a “state that supports terror” and rolled out its troops in the largest military operation in two decades. Now Bush had to decide: Could he condemn Israel for doing in the West Bank exactly what he was doing in Afghanistan? Every Middle East expert around him, beginning with his own national security staffers, argued that the two operations were completely different. But the line between the two terror wars could not honestly be drawn, and if something could not be done honestly, Bush could not do it.

Bush began to speak more frequently with Ariel Sharon — but he absolutely refused to see or even speak on the telephone with Arafat. Bush’s disdain so maddened the Palestinian leader that Arafat actually tried to shove himself into the president’s presence at the United Nations meeting in November and had to be physically blocked by the Secret Service. August’s “state first, peace later” policy was definitively repudiated. By November, when Powell at last delivered his big Middle East speech, all the deadlines and time lines and talk of international protection for Arafat had been deleted.

Then Arafat made what may someday be reckoned as the most fateful miscalculation of his career. On January 5, 2002, Israeli naval forces intercepted a Gaza-bound merchant ship loaded with fifty tonnes of arms from Iran. Arafat hastily sent Bush a letter denying any involvement in the shipment. Probably Arafat did not even intend his denial to be interpreted literally; he may have written it as a social form, like the phrase I regret in a letter declining an invitation to a wedding or a dinner party. If so, Arafat sorely misunderstood his man. Bush does not lie to you. You had better not lie to him.

The Karine A. incident finished off Arafat in Bush’s eyes. In conversation, Bush ceased to conceal either his contempt for the thuggish Palestinian or his irritation with the thug’s European protectors. “They just luuuuuve Arafat,” he would say with elongated wonder.

By the spring of 2002, the governments of almost every American ally were clamoring for some kind of pressure on Israel. The European Parliament was debating anti-Israel sanctions, left-wing protesters were flying to Ramallah to insert their bodies between Arafat and the Israeli army, the governments of Britain, Canada, and Australia were casting increasingly ominous anti-Israel votes at the United Nations. Yet in a rocking chair news conference in Crawford, Texas, on March 30, 2002, Bush bluntly refused to rescue Arafat from defeat.

“I fully understand Israel’s need to defend herself; I respect that. It’s a country that has seen a wave of suicide bombers coming into the hearts of their cities and killing innocent people. That country has a right to defend herself.”

By Bush’s own rules, Arafat was an enemy of civilization in general and the United States in particular. As Bush himself said in a speech in the Rose Garden on April 4, 2002, “Since September the eleventh, I’ve delivered this message: Everyone must choose; you’re either with the civilized world, or you’re with the terrorists. All in the Middle East also must choose and must move decisively in word and deed against terrorist acts.

“The chairman of the Palestinian Authority has not consistently opposed or confronted terrorists. At Oslo and elsewhere, Chairman Arafat renounced terror as an instrument of his cause, and he agreed to control it. He’s not done so.”

Yet even at this late date, Bush could not bring himself to accept all the logical implications of his own words. Having condemned Arafat for using terror, Bush limited himself to one final appeal to the Palestinian Authority — that is to say, to Arafat himself — to cut it out. “I call on the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority, and our friends in the Arab world to join us in a clear message to terrorists: Blowing yourself up does not help the Palestinian cause. On the contrary, suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state.”

Why did Bush take the stance he did? Not — as the European press insinuated — because of the “Jewish lobby.” That lobby exists, but what did Bush care for it? He would not need Jewish votes in 2004, and he certainly would not need Jewish political donations. As a challenger in 2000, Bush had raised nearly $200 million; as an incumbent, he needed only to raise a finger and the skies would shower gold wherever he directed. If Bush had a political worry, it was his own political base: conservatives, both religious and secular.

“What do you think our folks think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” Bush asked Rove one spring day.

Rove answered, “They think it’s part of your war on terror.”

That’s certainly what the polls showed. A Gallup poll conducted in April 2002 found that Republicans overwhelmingly took Israel’s side: 67 percent of Republicans said they supported Israel, as against only 8 percent who supported the Palestinians. Although close to 90 percent of Jewish voters are Democrats, the Democratic poll was much less lopsided: 45 percent of Democrats supported Israel, 21 percent favored the Palestinians.*

In one of his many astonishingly candid moments, Donald Rumsfeld expressed in the summer of 2002 the view of many Republicans about all the various peace plans that would require Israel to surrender the West Bank to Arafat’s rule: “If you have a country that’s a sliver and you can see three sides of it from a high hotel building, you’ve got to be careful what you give away and to whom you give it.”

To whom you give it — that summed the issue up for Rumsfeld, and it came to sum it up for Bush. It summed up the issue in Iraq, where America’s Arab allies urged the United States not to try to create a representative regime, but to replace Saddam Hussein with a more rational strongman. It was the issue in all those Arab countries where rage boiled against the United States because the United States was seen to prop up unresponsive and corrupt kings and presidents-for-life. It was the issue in Saudi Arabia, the homeland of bin Ladenism, where hundreds of billions of dollars from Western oil consumers had vanished who knew where.

And it summed up the issue on the West Bank. Could we really suppose that we could begin the war against terror by creating an Arafatistan on the West Bank? That would be like Churchill starting the war against Nazism by ceding Northern Ireland to the British Union of Fascists or Truman opening the cold war by inviting the Communist Party to seize power in New York City. In his speech to the joint session of Congress, Bush had explained that freedom was now at war with fear. Was this mere rhetoric? If we were fighting for freedom in the war against terror, as we had fought for freedom against Nazism and against communism and the other evil ideologies of the twentieth century, then we had to speak up for our ideals.

The radical idea that had been growing in Bush’s mind since December 2001 expressed itself the following June. As Israeli troops battled in some of the fiercest fighting of the entire al-Aqsa war — and the United Nations and European Union hurled false charges of massacre and genocide against Israel — pressure intensified on Bush to give the big speech that the international community had sought for a year: the speech that would at last smack down Israel and announce the date by which Arafat would get his state. All through the month of June, Bush thought and thought. There would be a story that tomorrow would be the day — and then the Palestinians would commit an atrocity, and the speech would be postponed. There would be another leak that the speech was now coming at last — and then another cancellation as Bush threw away the latest draft in exasperation.

At last, on June 24, 2002, at a little before four in the afternoon, with just a few hours’ warning, he stepped into the Rose Garden with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice at his side to announce that the United States would support the creation of a Palestinian state only if that state were democratic, tolerant, and liberal.

“I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. If the Palestinian people meet these goals, they will be able to reach agreements with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence.”

He continued: “Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism. This is unacceptable. And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure.” There would be no more exemptions and exceptions for Palestinian terror. One month later, on July 26, Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, told a closed session of the Security Council that from now on the United States would veto any resolution on Israel that did not also condemn Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Arafat’s al-Aqsa brigades by name.

This was not a message of threat. It was a message of hope: Democracy for the Palestinians could be the beginning of democracy for the whole Arab world. But for Palestinian democracy to prevail, Palestinian terror would have to cease.

“If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire men and women around the globe who are equally weary of poverty and oppression, and equally entitled to the benefits of democratic government.”

It was a breathtakingly ambitious message, and one much more likely to end in heartbreak than success. But if Palestinian democracy was improbable, the old goal — a Palestinian dictatorship at peace with Israel — had shown itself to be utterly impossible. The cold realists who had promised that only a thug like Arafat could control the real Palestinian crazies had been exposed as the goggly-eyed romantics.

Bush had found what all the great American presidents have believed: America’s principles are as real and necessary and powerful as oil reserves, aircraft carriers, and spy satellites. War had made him, as it had made Roosevelt and Reagan, a crusader after all.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is excerpted from The Right Man by David Frum (Random House 2003). It is reprinted with permission (© David Frum).


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