It was a bold and breathtaking Jeffersonian vision: not just a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but a solution requiring two democratic states.
Of course the president made clear that it’s up to the Palestinians themselves to undertake the necessary reforms. If they do, he promised them statehood within three years, with a provisional state coming earlier. But President Bush also committed himself personally: “I and my country will actively lead toward that goal.”
What the president is talking about is a radical transformation: regime change in Ramallah; democratic, representative, transparent institutions in the Arab heartland. It’s a goal unprecedented in Arab history.
How will Bush’s vision be achieved when an enfeebled Yasser Arafat is nevertheless still in control of the institutions Bush would reform and when the Israeli army is in control of almost all the territory where this Palestinian transformation is supposed to take place? There is a yawning gap between the president’s declaration of an American mandate for Palestine and the missing plan of action to achieve it.
Some of his advisers, fearful that the president’s rhetoric will now suck him into the Palestinian quagmire, may argue that the best way to fill the gap is to place the onus on the Palestinians and walk away. In the prevailing circumstances, such a Palestinian initiative is unlikely. Bush could thus find in Palestinian inaction a ready excuse to disengage from the effort and resume the planning for regime change in another part of the Arab world — Iraq. But this will be unachievable without Arab support, and that will require some effort to pursue the president’s plan for Palestine.
Once he has regained his equilibrium, Secretary of State Colin Powell could develop a diplomatic road map. The “Quartet” (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia) could be enlarged to include the Arab “trio” (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) to oversee the effort. While the United States maintained its principled stand of insisting that Arafat leave the scene, the rest could begin to make the arrangements by reinforcing Palestinian reformers’ pressure on Arafat to retire or assume a ceremonial presidency while vesting real power in an elected prime minister, cabinet and legislative council.
Meanwhile, CIA Director George Tenet would need to energize a Security Working Group, involving his Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts in an intensive effort to restructure the Palestinian security services. With American and Arab supervisors, these forces could begin to prevent Palestinian violence and terrorism, enabling the Israeli army to begin a phased withdrawal from Palestinian cities.
This would have to be accompanied by an American-led effort to create a “political horizon” for the Palestinians that would justify jettisoning their leadership and confronting their terrorists. To give credence to the president’s carrot of statehood, Secretary Powell would need to resume work on convening the regional conference that would relaunch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for the establishment of the “provisional” state and persuade Prime Minister Sharon to stop all settlement expansion.
The problem with this diplomatic orchestration is that it is likely to be swamped by continued Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli military responses. Imagine the scenario in which suicide bombers succeed in killing a large number of Israeli civilians and Sharon decides, using the president’s call for new leadership as cover, to evict Arafat from Palestine. This could leave a vacuum that radical forces would seek to fill, and might well generate instability in Jordan and Egypt, a Hezbollah-provoked Israeli-Syrian confrontation and Iraqi suspension of oil supplies, which this time might tip the U.S. economy back into recession.
In these circumstances, with American strategic interests threatened, the president would come under great pressure to substitute rhetoric with action. He would do well therefore to start planning for a more radical approach: an American-led trusteeship for Palestine.
Under this approach, a U.S.-led international group would assume control of the Palestinian areas now nominally assigned to the Palestinian Authority (42 percent of the West Bank and most of Gaza). An international conference would declare the creation of the Palestinian state but would place the territories in trust for three years. During this time, the U.S.-chaired trustees would oversee the building of the new state’s democratic institutions, election of its leadership, and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to define its permanent borders. A U.S.-led international force would have to take over responsibility from the Israeli army for policing the territories of the trusteeship.
Admittedly, this option is a stretch—one that in the present circumstances the president and the American people are unlikely to embrace. But it has precedent in Bosnia, East Timor, Afghanistan and perhaps soon Iraq. And it has the most chance of success, since it takes control of the Palestinian people and its territories out of the hands of Arafat and the Israeli army and vests it in a body that can do a much more thorough job of helping the Palestinians build democratic and transparent institutions while rooting out the terrorists.
The only catch is that it will require the United States and its allies to confront Palestinian terrorist organizations, exposing U.S. troops to the suicide bombers while they engage directly in the kind of military actions in Palestinian cities and refugee camps that have earned Israel international opprobrium. But the president’s rhetorical commitment to personal engagement in the radical transformation of Palestine could combine with a further descent into violent chaos there to produce circumstances that require a much deeper engagement. Breathtaking visions of nation-building in the Holy Land can have unintended consequences.