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Bush's stark Mideast markers

Arabs see no practical path to Bush vision

For the most part, the Israelis are delighted, the Arabs are aghast, and the Palestinians are trying to look on the bright side.

In a speech on Monday that reaffirmed US support for the policies and practices of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush also outlined his vision for a peaceful Middle East. Once the Palestinians institute a full-fledged democracy and elect "new leaders ... not compromised by terror," Mr. Bush promised, the US would help create a provisional Palestinian state.

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In short, the president's message seemed to be: Goodbye Yasser Arafat, hello Palestine – in that order.

But if Palestinians do put in place the sort of democracy that Bush calls for, complete with a new constitution, separation of powers, and a streamlined, accountable security apparatus, their government will stand alone in the Arab world.

None of the Arab regimes, including US friends such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, fulfills such democratic ideals.

Israel has been railing against the Palestinian leadership for many months, so Bush's formulation pleased many on the Israeli side of the conflict. "The speech was a vindication of Israel's approach that an absolute end to violence and terror" should precede any negotiations toward Palestinian statehood, says Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Mr. Sharon.

While those in government were pleased, critics worried that a wholehearted US endorsement of Sharon's view will not necessarily bring peace."[O]ne can be optimistic or, more to the point, naive, and believe that in the wake of Bush's speech the Palestinians will see the light, understand that they chose the wrong course, decry terrorism, and vomit it from their midst," wrote columnist Hemi Shalev in yesterday's Ma'ariv, a mass-circulation Israeli daily. "Nevertheless, it is more likely that this overtly unbalanced speech will only further complicate the situation.... [it] might have been a giant step for Ariel Sharon, but it was probably a very small step for the chances of peace."

"The White House does not want to become involved in negotiations: It wants an alibi that will justify its decision not to get the president involved in our affairs," wrote Nahum Barnea, the leading Israeli columnist for the Yedioth Ahronoth. "The president isn't built for Middle Eastern despair."

Most Arab commentators were dismayed at the deal Bush appeared to offer. "It's a fundamentally absurd proposal," said Lebanese political analyst Michael Young. "You cannot expect Arafat to reform the system when he's going to be a victim of that reform."

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Reform-minded Palestinians, such as former Cabinet minister Nabeel Amro, who resigned his office last month to protest Arafat's unwillingness to promote change, appreciated Bush's emphasis on democracy. The problem is that Bush said nothing about the nuts and bolts of reform or the logistics of holding elections in a territory whose cities and major towns are under Israeli military occupation. "We need an atmosphere in which to go about reform – we need a mechanism," says Mr. Amro. "We need strong pressure from the Bush administration on the Israelis to create this atmosphere."

For a people who can't leave the house to buy milk, much less campaign for office, the absence of any presidential call for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories was seen as a sign of disingenuousness.

"He was indifferent to what is going on on the ground," says Abdul Jawad Saleh, a member of the Palestinian parliament. "We are under reoccupation; we can't move from one city to another."

Ghassan Khatib, whom Arafat appointed to a reshuffled cabinet this month, says that "as a Palestinian, I felt the guy was hostile to us from the first word to the last word."

Bush's tone, and the suggestion that the American president should tell Palestinians when to change leaders, will backfire, Mr. Khatib argues. "At the end of the day, Palestinians are still supporting Yasser Arafat," he says. "This is not going to change."

Mr. Saleh isn't so sure. A longtime critic of the Palestinian leader, he argues that an opposition candidate, if he or she were allowed to campaign openly and candidly, could defeat Arafat. But such an upset will not occur, he cautions, if elections are held in the shadow of Israeli tanks – conditions that will only aid a man considered the father of the Palestinian movement.

Gerald Butt, Gulf editor of the Middle East Economic Survey, adds: "The Arab view will be that it's quite unacceptable for Washington to say who should lead the Palestinians, or anyone else for that matter. The Arab view is that the Israelis are causing the problem, and if you are going to change anybody, they'd want to change Sharon. Arafat is deemed as ineffective, but he's the elected leader, and they're not in the mood to be told by Amer-ica, which espouses democracy, to get rid of an elected leader."

Arab analysts noted that Bush did not mention the Middle East peace conference the US said it would organize or the Saudi peace initiative adopted by the Arab League in March. The Saudi initiative called on Israel to withdraw from territory occupied since 1967 in exchange for full normalization with the Arab world. The proposal, the most far-reaching concession from the Arabs in decades, was seen as a platform on which to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement.

"Who remembers the Saudi initiative now?" asked Sateh Noureddine, a columnist for Beirut's As-Safir daily newspaper. "It's dead and buried."

• Nicholas Blanford in Beirut and Michael Theodoulou in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.


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