A few short weeks ago, President Bush was preparing a speech announcing his plan to establish an interim Palestinian State. Then, something changed.
A homicidal Palestinian boarded a bus in Jerusalem and detonated a bomb, massacring 19 innocent people and injuring more than 50 others. The White House announced that it would delay the president's speech.
Most assumed that Bush would still call for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state, after once again condemning the latest act of genocide. But he surprised us this time and finally changed course.
Bush said that there were at least two conditions precedent to peace in the region and the creation of a Palestinian state: The Palestinians would have to pick a new leader "not compromised by terror" and develop a democratic regime undergirded by the rule of law and a market economy.
The question is whether this new course is more likely than his previous one to lead to peace in the Middle East. Actually, that's not the only question. There are other relevant ones as well, such as whether this new approach is more compatible with the Bush Doctrine and whether it will free the United States to prosecute its own war on terror.
Obviously, there are no easy, much less certain answers. I agree that the president's policy is a dramatic improvement over his previous pronouncements, and I applaud him for it, but I'm not sure it represents a turning point of the magnitude many are predicting. Let's look more closely at what he said.
Initially, I suspected a contradiction between Bush's call for Arafat's ouster and Palestinian self-rule. If we are telling them whom to elect, how can they be governing themselves? The answer is that Bush laid out an order for the satisfaction of his conditions, which makes them reconcilable.
He said the Palestinians must first discard their terrorist leader, then elect new leaders "not compromised by terror, then "build a practicing democracy." This change must not just be nominal, as in substituting one thuggish leader for another. It must be from the bottom up, with the Palestinian people being fully invested in it.
So what if the Palestinians hold elections, and then democratically choose Arafat or another terrorist? Unacceptable. If they choose a terrorist -- even democratically, they will be signaling their unwillingness to reject terror as a way of life.
Honestly, I don't know why this recent bombing and the revelation that Arafat had paid its perpetrators $20,000 was the last straw for President Bush. We've repeatedly caught Arafat dead to rights funding terrorists. But I won't quibble with the details. I'm just gratified that President Bush now regards Arafat as an incorrigible terrorist.
It seems to me that the problem with the Bush plan is its underlying assumption that the Palestinian people -- as opposed to their corrupt leaders -- are willing to peacefully coexist with Israel. After decades of indoctrination and being trained to hate, a majority of Palestinians apparently approve of terror and the extermination of Israel. If this is truly their mindset, then democracy is simply another avenue to a terrorist regime. And the terrorists will be able to do far more damage if they are operating under the authority of a sovereign Palestinian state.
The plan also assumes that self-rule -- as distinguished from a theocracy -- is compatible with Islam. We've seen little evidence of that in history, or in the present.
If the president sticks to his guns and refuses to sanction a Palestinian state until the Palestinians reject Arafat and other terrorist leaders, and if he conceptually severs the Middle East quagmire from our own war on terror, we will have made some progress. But those are tall orders.
If the Palestinians do renounce terror and establish a democracy, that's wonderful. But it will require an enormous amount of hands-on attention from us -- which could greatly distract us from our own war. If the Palestinians don't satisfy our conditions and we continue to deny them their state, there will be more terror and then some.
President Bush deserves much credit for finally bringing the Middle East issue into his house of moral clarity -- no longer paying lip service to a moral equivalency between the misdeeds of the Palestinians and Israel's actions in defending herself -- and for outlining a plausible, if unlikely, blueprint for peace.
But I fear that this Middle East problem is bigger than all of us mortals, including the world's sole superpower. If the Palestinian people can bring themselves to countenance an adjacent Israeli state, peace can be achieved. But that's a monumental "if."