No Clear Vision

The reaction in the Middle East to President Bush’s speech last week was nothing less than extraordinary. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat praised the speech, which seemingly called for his removal from office, while a spokesman for Israel’s settlement movement in the occupied territories expressed pleasure that “Bush has taken Prime Minister Sharon’s line, which is our line.”

The Israeli interpretations of the speech were certainly more celebratory than those of the Palestinians, and with good reason. The president, after all, conditioned his support for a Palestinian state on a change in Palestinian leadership, reform and an end to terrorism. Feeling vindicated, Ariel Sharon pressed on with his military campaign in the occupied territories as the collapsing Palestinian Authority watched helplessly.

What is more unexpected is that Palestinian leaders, moderate Arab governments and the Arab League have expressed reserved support for Bush’s vision. This seems paradoxical, given the fact that the gap between the positions of the Sharon government and those of Arab states friendly with the United States—including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan—remains as wide as ever. Welcome to the newest iteration of the Middle East spin game.

Israeli politicians have long understood the importance of spin in America and the centrality of public perceptions in affecting policy. When an American president makes an important statement, the Israelis choose to highlight those aspects that they like and ignore those that don’t please them. They did the same this time.

In this case, there was much for Sharon to like, but there were also some statements that were less pleasing: Bush’s calls for an end to settlement activity and Israeli occupation and for the start of Palestinian statehood within three years. Those aspects of the president’s speech are hardly identical with the views of the Israeli settlement movement, but the advantage of ignoring them is clear.

On the other hand, Arab leaders, especially Palestinians, have rarely understood the importance of spin in America. Even when they largely agreed with American positions, they often came across as opposing them. In the process, they engaged in self-defeating rhetoric.

A good case in point was when President Clinton advanced peace proposals for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during his last weeks in office. Although the proposals fell short of the full aspirations of either side, they were closer to the fulfillment of Palestinian hopes than the positions of any previous American leader. Although the Palestinians did not reject the proposal, they put forth a lengthy list of reservations that was ultimately seen by the American media as a rejection.

The resulting perception reinforced the prevailing view in the United States and in Israel that the Palestinians, especially Arafat, would never accept compromise. (On the eve of President Bush’s speech, the Israeli press reported that Arafat now accepted those proposals—even though in Palestinian minds they had never rejected them.) But since the debacle of the Clinton proposal, the Palestinians have emulated the Israelis and moderate Arab states by listening more to the advice of a Washington consulting firm they have hired.

In anticipation of Bush’s long-awaited speech, the Palestinians and Arab countries decided to focus on the positive and not reject the speech outright. This strategy was pursued partly because Bush takes things personally and views reactions in black-and-white terms: “You’re either with us or against us.” In other words, the Arab leaders believed that the way they reacted to the initiative might be more important than their views in determining how the president responds to them.

Because they remain tethered to the United States—and the military, economic and political support it provides—moderate Arab leaders did not want to be on Bush’s bad side. Beyond that, facing public opinion in the region that is demanding indications of movement toward an escape from the daily pain, no Arab leader would benefit from portraying Bush’s vision as being hopeless.

Bush’s speech turned out to be more difficult for Arabs, especially Palestinians, than they had anticipated. The most startling aspect of the president’s speech was the escalation of his demands on the Palestinians. No longer were the demands limited to ending terrorism and reforming the Palestinian Authority—now they also included a change of leadership. And Bush left little doubt that he sees these demands as preconditions for supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Still, Arab leaders stuck with their plan of concentrating on the positives and interpreting the speech as they wanted it to be perceived. Arafat and his Arab colleagues said they didn’t think “leadership change” meant replacing Arafat, even as much of the American and Israeli press was declaring the end of his era. And the focus of the official Arab reaction was on the aspects of the speech that are positive from the Arab point of view.

But privately, Palestinian and other Arab diplomats have expressed genuine concern, puzzlement and confusion about the aims of the speech in particular, and about American policy toward the Middle East in general.

Originally, the speech was intended as a prelude to a U.S.-sponsored peace conference that would be held this summer; it was supposed to define the American position on the parameters of a final settlement. But the speech included no mention of a conference, and there were no new details of the kind of final settlement the United States would back.

So what did the president hope to achieve with this speech?

It contained no framework for renewing negotiations, and no specific peace plan. It empowered Secretary of State Colin Powell to develop a comprehensive peace proposal, but the focus of such a plan seemed to be largely on Palestinian reform. Although the idea of reform resonates among Palestinians, many of whom have been critical of the Palestinian Authority, most see the end to occupation and the miserable conditions of their lives under occupation as a higher priority than reform.

They also fear that the issue of reform will be used as an excuse to block progress toward ending the occupation. Already the speech’s focus on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority seems to mask the increasing reality that Israeli occupation of the West Bank is now more pervasive and dominant than at any time since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the mid-’90s.

For now, U.S. leaders’ requirement for Palestinian reform seems to justify, in their minds, the postponement of a detailed peace plan. But if Bush’s intent was simply to accelerate Arafat’s demise, it is hard to see how the speech will accomplish the task.

Even if Arafat’s popularity is at a low point, we should have no illusions about our own president’s standing among regular people in the region. In a head-to-head competition, it is clear who the winner would be. Above all, the public in the region may want change, but when that change is demanded from the outside, it is rejected, especially when the intentions of outside powers are not trusted. Defying America becomes a more dominant force than replacing Arafat.

Arafat himself has announced plans for Palestinian presidential and legislative elections in January. Although Palestinians have reservations about his leadership, there is no one who is more popular. More important, elections are ultimately about organizations. His political party, Fatah, will field only one candidate, and he is likely to be that candidate. Opposition parties are weaker, and most of them are more militant. Some may not participate in the elections.

Given all of that, the Bush administration may well be underestimating Arafat’s chances for re-election. If he is democratically re-elected, will the Palestinians have met Bush’s pre-condition of “leadership change?” If not, will we oppose the outcome of a democratic election?

In the meantime, Sharon will continue to interpret the American position as a green light to proceed with his increasing control of the West Bank, chipping away at Arafat’s functional authority. In the president’s speech Sharon will find the justifications he needs: the right of “self-defense” and the absence of real reform on the Palestinian side.

In the end, mere spin will not be enough to address the pressing pain in the Middle East. Anger with the United States in the Arab world remains as the suffering in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in Israel continues. More important, public scorn of U.S.-friendly governments in the region has increased significantly over the past several months as the public helplessly watched so much bloodshed on their television screens and became disgusted with their leaders’ inability to stop it.

The spin game may help these leaders’ images in America, but it is unlikely to help America’s image in the Middle East.