I wrote an article earlier this week reminding readers that George W. Bush has ideas about a Palestinian state that could – assuming the Palestinians have a post-Arafat leadership quickly enough – lead to "the most severe crisis ever in U.S.-Israel relations."
Well, the process has already started, judging by the joint press conference Bush had today with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain. After briefly discussing Afghanistan and Iraq (note the predominant role of the Middle East), Bush said this:
Prime Minister Blair and I also share a vision of a free, peaceful, a democratic broader Middle East. That vision must include a just and peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on two democratic states—Israel and Palestine—living side-by-side in peace and security.
Our sympathies are with the Palestinian people as they begin a period of mourning. Yet the months ahead offer a new opportunity to make progress toward a lasting peace. Soon Palestinians will choose a new President. This is the first step in creating lasting democratic political institutions through which a free Palestinian people will elect local and national leaders.
We're committed to the success of these elections, and we stand ready to help. We look forward to working with a Palestinian leadership that is committed to fighting terror and committed to the cause of democratic reform. We'll mobilize the international community to help revive the Palestinian economy, to build up Palestinian security institutions to fight terror, to help the Palestinian government fight corruption, and to reform the Palestinian political system and build democratic institutions.
We'll also work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to complete the disengagement plan from Gaza and part of the West Bank. These steps, if successful, will lay the foundation for progress in implementing the road map, and then lead to final status negotiations.
We seek a democratic, independent and viable state for the Palestinian people. We are committed to the security of Israel as a Jewish state. These objectives—two states living side-by-side in peace and security—can be reached by only one path: the path of democracy, reform, and the rule of law.
Bush went even further in the question-and-answer period:
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you. With Yasser Arafat's death, what specific steps can Israel take to revive peace negotiations? And do you believe that Israel should implement a freeze on West Bank settlement expansion?
PRESIDENT BUSH: I believe that the responsibility for peace is going to rest with the Palestinian people's desire to build a democracy and Israel's willingness to help them build a democracy. I know we have a responsibility as free nations to set forth a strategy that will help the Palestinian people head toward democracy. I don't think there will ever be lasting peace until there is a free, truly democratic society in the Palestinian territories that becomes a state. And therefore, the responsibility rests with both the Palestinian people and the leadership which emerges, with the Israelis to help that democracy grow, and with the free world to put the strategy in place that will help the democracy grow.
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: James.
Q Mr. President, can you say today that it is your firm intention that by the end of your second term in office, it is your goal that there should be two states—Israel and Palestine—living side-by-side?
PRESIDENT BUSH: I think it is fair to say that I believe we've got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state. I believe it is in the interest of the world that a truly free state develop. I know it is in the interests of the Palestinian people that they can live in a society where they can express their opinion freely, a society where they can educate their children without hate, a society in which they can realize their dreams if they happen to be an entrepreneur. I know it's in Israel's interest that a free state evolve on her border. There's no other way to have a lasting peace, in my judgment, unless we all work to help develop the institutions necessary for a state to emerge: civil society, based upon justice, free speech, free elections, the right for people to express themselves freely. The first step of that is going to be the election of a new president, and my fervent hope is that the president embraces the notion of a democratic state.
I hate to put artificial time frames on things; unfortunately I've got one on my existence as President. It's not artificial, it's actually real. And I'd like to see it done in four years. I think it is possible. I think it is possible.
There is more on this same topic in the press conference, but this suffices to show how determined the president is to see a Palestinian state emerge on his watch. Also, he is saying (along the lines of his June 2002 speech and the policy in Iraq) that if the Palestinians develop a democratic system, they will for sure live in harmony side-by-side with Israel. To which I say that if the Palestinians still retain their intent to destroy Israel, democracy cannot take place. Instead, the goal of U.S. policy should be to get the Palestinians to give up on this foul goal. (November 12, 2004)
Nov. 16, 2004 update: It's long been suspected that Bush had obligated himself to Tony Blair to engage in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. Now, surprisingly, French president Jacques Chirac has confirmed this. The Times (London) reports that Chirac revealed to British journalists that "he had urged Mr Blair to demand the relaunch of the Middle East peace process in return for backing the [Iraq] war."
Dec. 1, 2004 update: The president's thinking is evolving and I am getting more optimistic. Here is an excerpt from a speech he gave today in Halifax, Canada:
Achieving peace in the Holy Land is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement. This approach has been tried before, without success. As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy. The Palestinian people deserve a peaceful government that truly serves their interests, and the Israeli people need a true partner in peace.
Our destination is clear: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. And that destination can be reached by only one path, the path of democracy and reform and the rule of law. If all parties will apply effort, if all nations who are concerned about this issue will apply goodwill, this conflict can end and peace can be achieved. And the time for that effort and the time for that goodwill is now.
I disagree that democracy is the first order of business here – any more than it was in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia – thinking that giving up on the war effort must come first. That said, the above comments have the great advantage of (1) putting the onus squarely where belongs, on the Palestinians, and (2) implying that the pressure on Israel to make concessions is still some ways off.