Palestine: Its Time To Clinch The Deal
President Bush, whose administration at first refused to take any active part in the Middle East process has now, committed itself to peace in the Middle East through the creation of Palestinian State. This is unprecedented. No American President has ever made such a serious and decisive commitment to the Palestinian cause ever before. This is the first time that an American leader has risked his own credibility and political future and the prestige of America in such a way. The Middle East is a dangerous place to place bets on peace. President Bush deserves credit, commendation and support for displaying such courage.
Both Israelis and Palestinians must realize that their best hope for peace and a negotiated settlement is through the brokerage of the US. If three years from now there is no peace in the Middle East, then US prestige will be undermined significantly and George Bush will still have three more years to take his revenge on the region by simply turning his back to them. No American President will in future dare to risk all for peace and only Palestinians and Israelis will feel the pain.
The Bush speech itself is essentially the articulation of a vision of two democratic states living in peace side by side with the support and blessings of Arab States and the US. It should not be treated as a plan. As a vision it is extraordinarily bold, reasonably just though a bit optimistic. As a plan it is woeful. It is full of ifs and buts.
There are too many demands made of the poor Palestinians and very few of Israelis. The consequences for Palestinians are clear. If they fail to meet US demands, the US will not support a Palestinian State. President Bush made this very clear. What is not clear is what will happen if Israelis do not stop settlement building, or if they do not withdraw to pre-Intifada II boundaries or if they do not agree to the normalization of Palestinian economy.
There are some remarkable aspects to the speech. It did not back away from touching upon the crucial – deal breaking – issues such as the right of return and settlements. Its most outstanding character is that for the first time ever, the Palestinians have a date that they can mark as their possible independence day – June 24th 2005. Also the President’s insistence that Palestinians democratize before they gain statehood is very important.
As a Muslim intellectual who advocates democracy in the Muslim World, I recognize that this is the best chance that Palestinians have for a democracy. If they gain their statehood before democracy is entrenched, then Palestine will most likely become like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya etc – another authoritarian Arab regime, where people have no self-rule.
There will be many in Palestine and the Arab world that will resist this idea calling it as external dictation of who rules Palestinians. I hope that Palestinians reject these voices and take President Bush’s demands for democratization constructively and immediately start work on a constitution that will enshrine an independent judiciary, empower the parliament, limit executive powers, increase transparency, localize governance and strengthen accountability. It is time to start nation building.
The second problem in the speech was the indirect demand to Palestinians to dump Arafat. The problem with the demand is that the only entity that is capable of initiating the political reforms that President Bush is calling for is the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Arafat. There are two issues here, operational and symbolic; How to ensure that PA will reform itself and how to marginalize Arafat who in many ways is seen as the father the Palestinian statehood.
The Palestinians will have to work it out. I only hope that they realize that achieving statehood is more important than supporting Arafat. Perhaps they can convince Arafat to take a ceremonial position and conduct fair and open elections to allow new leadership to emerge. This is not the time for defiance for the sake of defiance. This is time to clinch the deal.
It is possible that the Palestinians may meet the tough demands made by President Bush and the talks may fail again in the final settlement negotiations, especially over the issue of settlements or if terrorism continues. It is also possible that like the previous President, this President too may blame the Palestinians alone for any future derailment of talks. Anything can happen, this is the Middle East we are talking about. But even in the worst-case scenario, the Palestinians will still be better off. They will at least have an honest, accountable, transparent government that respects the rights and dignity of its own citizens and uses its resources for the welfare of its people.
It is time to say enough is enough. For too long too many have lived in anguish and fear. Violence and oppression have led only to pain and misery. There is no dignity and no glory in subjugation and insecurity. Peace is a compromise. It means that all will have to settle for less than everything they want. But it is better than death and destruction. I hope that Palestinians and Israelis take this opportunity offered to them by the American President.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of International Studies at Adrian College and is also on the board of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.