WASHINGTON -- The potentially fatal flaw of President Bush's Middle East peace framework was exposed just days after his speech last week. To make his historic call for a Palestinian state palatable for Israel and its allies in Congress, Bush demanded removal from power of Yasser Arafat. But, it quickly became clear, that strengthened the old guerrilla leader's sagging position with Palestinians and in the broader Arab world.
This development profoundly depresses sincere supporters within the Palestinian Authority of a peaceful two-state solution. They know that Arafat, depleted at age 72, is not the solution today and probably never was. Prominent peace-seekers in Saudi Arabia have always envisioned Arafat as no more than a figurehead in a future Palestinian state.
Instead, Arafat is the Catch-22 of the Middle East. Bush echoed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's insistence on new Palestinian leadership to cloak his historic proposals for peace that were unthinkable even months ago. However, by inadvertently contributing to Arafat's retention in a free election, Bush undermines his own framework for a Palestinian state -- much to Sharon's delight.
Understandable attention last week to Bush's Arafat-must-go dictum has obscured details in the president's speech that thrilled Arab peace-seekers. For the first time, the U.S. is solidly on record in favor of a Palestinian state. Calling it "untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation," Bush recognized "deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people." More specific are his implicit support of pre-1967 borders, his call for an end to "Israeli settlement activity" and his concern for the "plight of and future of Palestinian refugees."
Contrary to claims that Colin Powell was humiliated by the president's speech, the secretary of state advanced U.S. policy toward a negotiated peace over aggressive opposition in the State Department and White House. "As never before," a Saudi official told me, "the stars are aligned for real progress."
All the stars, that is, except the demand for new leadership. The U.S. has its candidates for Arafat's successor: Mohammed Dahlan, former Gaza security chief, and Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), who is Arafat's official deputy. Identification with Washington is no asset in a Palestinian election campaign. Reports that Dahlan's office was left untouched by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in their recent offensive encouraged belief among Palestinians that he is Israel's -- and America's -- man.
A more popular leader might be Marwan Barghouti, secretary general of Arafat's Fatah movement. During the IDF's military offensive, he was arrested April 15 on charges of planning dozens of terrorist attacks. Responsible Palestinian officials say the charges are unfounded, but Barghouti remains in Israeli custody. Whether he would be permitted to campaign for president in the planned Palestinian election is at least questionable.
If permitted to run, Barghouti might have a better prospect of winning than American-approved candidates but less chance than a commander from the civilian-killing Hamas organization, which deplores a negotiated solution even more than Sharon. In truth, however, all are underdogs against Arafat. His election is the Catch-22 that negates Bush's bold promises.
Disaffection with Arafat is nothing new among important Palestinians who privately express the view that he should have declared victory in 1993 and resigned when the Oslo accord won him a share of the Nobel Peace Prize. While attacked as a diabolical master of terrorism, he actually is a failing bureaucrat who is a disaster for his people.
Powell has become convinced that Palestinian Authority leadership was culpable in the suicide bombings, but the secretary of state must employ diplomatic ingenuity for a greater purpose than just getting rid of Arafat. How can the democratic process be fine-tuned to eventually elect a new Palestinian leader free of the American taint but not barred from the negotiating table by Israel?
The difficulty cheers Arik Sharon. Nobody who has listened to the prime minister has any doubt about his determination to persist with Jewish settlements that will split up the occupied territories and block the Palestinian state envisioned by George W. Bush. There is not all that much in Bush's speech that Sharon approves, but the president's demand for a new leader is enough to preclude all the rest.