WASHINGTON--The president's speech on the Middle East this week unveiled a radically new idea that goes far beyond the ``Arafat has to go'' headlines. Of course Arafat has to go. He has spent his eight years in control of Palestinian society encouraging and glorifying violence. ``Asking Arafat to give up terrorism,'' explains Bernard Lewis, the dean of Middle East scholars, ``would be like asking Tiger Woods to give up golf.'' As long as Arafat is in control, the blood is guaranteed to flow. Of course he has to go.
But President Bush went far beyond the obvious. He dared to apply the fundamental principle of American foreign policy--the promotion of democracy--to the one area where it has always been considered verboten: the Middle East.
Why is that important? Because the Middle East conflict is often dismissed as one of those incurable they-have-been-killing-each-other-for-centuries ethnic conflicts. So what can we do?
Do what Europe did. Europeans have been killing each other for millennia (see Heroditus, Thucydides, Caesar). But not anymore. Why? They discovered democracy, and the peace that comes with tolerant, open societies.
There is never any guarantee of peace, but democracy comes close. There is no reason in principle why an open and democratic Palestine could not resolve what is essentially a border dispute with an open and democratic Israel.
The president's proposal for democratizing Palestine is a fundamental rejection of the Oslo conceit that you could impose upon Palestinian society a PLO thugocracy led by the inventors of modern terrorism and then be surprised that seven years later it exploded in violence.
After a decade of ignoring the Palestinian Authority's corruption, its incitement to hatred, its militarization of Palestinian society, its glorification of violence, indeed, its creation in Palestine, as nowhere else on earth, of a deeply disturbed cult of death, the United States has declared that with this leadership there can be no peace.
The Bush proposal is grounded in the larger American idea that the spread of democracy is fundamental not only to the spread of American values but to the achievement of peace. Ironically, the man who first insisted that this idea had to be applied to the Middle East is Natan Sharansky, hero of the gulag. Drawing on his experience in the struggle against Soviet tyranny, Sharansky has for years argued that there could be no progress in peacemaking until the Arabs democratized. This earned him the sneers of the Oslo sophisticates as just another right-winger trying to derail the Oslo ``peace process'' by making ``impossible'' demands on the Palestinians.
Sharansky was right. Had he been listened to earlier, we might have derailed the ``war process'' that was Oslo.
Some in the State Department had been pushing--and leaking--a Bush Middle East initiative that would begin with the immediate granting of ``provisional statehood'' to Palestine. They lost. It was just too absurd that in the midst of its own fight against terrorists, the United States should gratuitously confer the powers of statehood upon a Palestinian Authority, as the president put it, ``trafficking with terrorists.''
Instead, insisted the president, there will be no American support for a Palestinian state until ``the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors.'' Close call. A policy that was headed for a shipwreck--a ``provisional'' state run by terrorists--has turned into a new and promising American initiative.
The test, however, is implementation. Already, those who once gave us Oslo and who were pushing for immediate ``provisional'' Palestinian statehood are now urging a more fixed timetable to statehood--presumably to give the Palestinians ``hope.'' But what if the Palestinian Authority goes unreformed? What if the terrorism continues? What if the president's conditions are flouted? You can be sure that the Arabs, the Europeans and the clever ones at State (and their semiofficial spokesmen at The New York Times) will be pushing to explain away or just ignore Palestinian noncompliance in order to stay on calendar and get us to the ultimate goal of ``peace.''
They never learn. That is precisely how Oslo ended in catastrophe. Every condition imposed on the Palestinians--Arafat's written pledge to renounce terrorism, to end incitement, to limit the size of his ``police,'' to truly recognize Israel's right to exist--was systematically violated. The Labor governments in Jerusalem and the Clinton administration in Washington ignored the violations, equally systematically, so as not to disturb the ``peace process.''
We cannot make that mistake again. There is a road to peace. If the Palestinians show a genuine willingness to reform and accept a settlement with Israel, there can be peace. But we cannot let the benchmarks be eroded and the conditions be ignored. If they are, then the promise of the president's bold new policy will have been irrevocably lost.