On April 4, 2002, twelve years ago today, President George W. Bush gave the first of two important speeches about Middle East policy. The April 4 speech challenged the leadership of Yasser Arafat, whom the administration had found to be continuing to support terrorism and lie to American officials about it. Bush said this:
This can be a time for hope. But it calls for leadership, not for terror. Since September the 11th, 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. The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making. He’s missed his opportunities, and thereby betrayed the hopes of the people he’s supposed to lead.
This was criticism, but not a clean break. That came in a speech Bush delivered on June 24, 2002, where he said this:
Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born.
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….And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state….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.
This was a clear message: Arafat had to go.
There were long debates within the Bush administration about the June speech. In my book, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I describe them at length.
If there had been a glimmer of hope at the end of April that violence and terror would end, by June that hope was gone. With acts of terror almost daily and major Israeli action in the West Bank, could Bush say and do nothing? The last time the President had dealt with the region, in April, the “action” he had taken was to announce he was sending Powell out there again, but Powell’s unsuccessful April trip took that option off the table. “The State Department again proposed a peace conference; the President again said no, not with Arafat,” Rice recalled. Cheney and Rumsfeld urged Bush to remain silent: he had given his views in the April speech and nothing would be gained by wading in again. From his own March trip to the region, Cheney had concluded that the Arab leaders were focused on the United States and Iraq, not the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
I’ve been informed, since the book appeared in print, that Cheney and Rumsfeld were not in fact opposed to giving the speech. What they opposed was another effort like the April speech, equivocal about Arafat and giving him yet another chance, and launching yet another Powell trip to see Arafat yet again. They believed that Arafat had proved conclusively who he was, and that the United States should break with him entirely and call for his replacement.
So they favored giving a tough speech, and in the end strongly supported the draft that emerged for June 24th —while Powell and the State Department hated it. Cheney spent several days in June in Beaver Creek, Colorado at the annual AEI World Forum, where he met with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet prisoner of conscience and in 2002 Israel’s deputy prime minister. On June 20th Sharansky delivered the keynote speech there, entitled “Democracy For Peace,” and in it said “I believe that it will be a tragic mistake if, just in the midst of this campaign of terror, the president of the United States rewards Arafat with a declaration that he deserves to head a state. There is no doubt that such a state would be a terrorist one.” The link between these thoughts and Bush’s remarks is obvious, and in fact Cheney discussed the Bush speech drafts with Sharansky on June 21st. In his book The Case for Democracy, Sharansky wrote about his meeting with Cheney:
Even though I had discussed the link between democracy and peace with the vice president before, our meeting, initially scheduled for thirty minutes, went on for over an hour and a half. I told him how disappointed I was to hear that President Bush was planning to give Arafat another chance….When Cheney asked me what I thought the president should speak about…I returned to the important link between democracy and peace, between a free society for the Palestinians and security for Israelis, ideas for which the vice president had a great deal of sympathy….Cheney promised he would pass along my ideas to the president.
So the account in my book is not entirely accurate: it seems that Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted to avoid another Bush speech like that of April 4, but did not oppose a speech on June 24 as long as it delivered a tough and final message about Arafat. And in part due to Cheney’s pressure, so it did. President Bush was committed to Palestinian democracy as a precondition for statehood, accepted the Sharansky view (and the two men later became good friends), and made it clear that Arafat had to go. That message was not delivered in April, but came through loud and clear in June.
A final note: the issue at stake in those speeches remains critical today. Is it the goal of American policy to create a Palestinian state regardless of what goes in within the borders of that state? Have we abandoned the goal, stressed by Bush twelve years ago, that a Palestinian state be “a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty?” So it appears, for the negotiations under way now appear focused on the shape of the Palestinian state–not its character.