Just when it appeared as if he could do no wrong, President George W. Bush this week reminded us all that even great leaders can make monumental mistakes.
Addressing the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday, Bush spoke of his "personal commitment" to the idea of establishing a Palestinian state, despite Yasser Arafat's 30-month-long campaign of lethal error against Israel. The president even went so far as to say that the new Israeli government "will be expected to support the creation" of such a state, sounding more like he was issuing an order to a servant than referring to one of America's closest friends and allies.
Even more inexplicable, though, was the linkage Bush chose to make between the war in Iraq and the Palestinian issue. "Success in Iraq," he argued, "could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state."
Now, there are plenty of good reasons already to take down Saddam, ranging from those vials of VX, bottles of botulin and sacks of smallpox that he is known to be hiding from Hans Blix. Not to mention his nasty little habit of murdering his own civilians, threatening Iraq's neighbors and his frenzied efforts to join the nuclear club.
But why did Bush feel the need to make this rather specious connection between Baghdad and Ramallah?
It would be easy to dismiss the president's remarks as just another attempt to appease Arab public opinion before the start of the impending war with Baghdad. After all, much of the Arab world will be less than thrilled to see U.S. Marines hauling Saddam Hussein off in handcuffs, so Bush likely feels he must offer them some sort of verbal "quid pro quo" to keep them happy.
But if Bush truly means what he says, and there is every reason to believe that he does, then it amounts to a dangerous misreading of the situation in the region, one that is likely to boomerang against both the United States and Israel.
It is not Saddam who is preventing the Palestinians from achieving statehood — it is the Palestinians themselves who have done so.
They rejected then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's proposed concessions at the July 2000 Camp David Summit, and they have been on the warpath ever since. In just the past three weeks alone, there have been 193 Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis, including stabbings, shootings, rocket attacks, and attempted suicide bombings.
By resorting to violence and terror on such a grand scale, the Palestinians have singlehandedly undermined any claim they might have had to being worthy of statehood alongside Israel. For Bush to speak out now about granting them independence, at a time when they are engrossed in trying to kill Jews, is remarkably ill-conceived and astonishingly inappropriate.
Moreover, it becomes even more difficult to understand the president's statement in light of the fact that the Palestinians are currently standing firmly behind America's number one enemy: Saddam Hussein himself.
Rank-and-file Palestinians make no effort to conceal their backing for the Iraqi dictator. A public-opinion poll conducted last month by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 65.6 percent of Palestinians, or nearly two-thirds, said they would support Iraq if it came under attack by the U.S.
Mass rallies were held by Palestinians in Gaza and Nablus on January 17 as part of "Iraq Solidarity Week" in the Palestinian-controlled areas. Demonstrators held aloft photographs of Yasser Arafat alongside Saddam Hussein, and chanted anti-American slogans. The marches were organized jointly by Hamas and Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO.
The Palestinian leadership has also made no bones about its support for the beleaguered Butcher of Baghdad. On February 5, Arafat sent a telegraph to Saddam, extending his "heartiest brotherly wishes" and expressing the hope that "Allah will protect Iraq from the great dangers and evils that loom over it."
Last Friday, on February 21, Arafat's official radio and television station broadcast a weekly prayer sermon delivered at a mosque in Gaza, in which the Palestinian preacher described America as "the primary enemy of the people of Palestine and the Arab and Islamic nation." He added that the U.S. aim is to "control Iraq's oil," hence President Bush is determined to go to war.
A second sermon, broadcast the same day from Ramallah on Palestinian radio and television, concluded with the words, "O God, protect Iraq and its People."
It should therefore be apparent that the linkage suggested by President Bush between Baghdad and Ramallah is way off the mark. Palestinians will not view the removal of Saddam as an act of liberation, but as an assault on their hero, one whom they have enthusiastically idolized for more than a decade.
And what's more, by suggesting that the liberation of Iraqis will be followed by freedom for the Palestinians, Bush is unwittingly suggesting a moral equivalence between the two, as if Israel and Saddam were in the same category. From the outset of the current war on terror, Bush made clear that the world would have to choose which side it was on, that of good or that of evil. The Palestinians have made their choice, siding with Saddam and engaging in terror against Israel. It is time for President Bush to start treating them accordingly.Michael Freund served from 1996 to 1999 as deputy director of communications and policy planning under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is currently an editorial writer and syndicated columnist at The Jerusalem Post.
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