President Bush touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport today to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel’s establishment. He said America’s aim “must be to support our strongest ally and friend in the Middle East … and, at the same time, talk about a hopeful future” — a reference to the ever-elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace that Bush has focused on so strongly in his second term, and one that seems even more elusive as a rocket from Gaza devastated an Israeli shopping mall just hours after Bush touched down.
Bush, in Israel for the second time in four months, got red-carpet treatment at Ben-Gurion Airport and was greeted by a throng of dignitaries including Prime Minister Olmert, President Peres, the entire cabinet, religious leaders and others. “Your decision to celebrate this historic milestone with us,” Olmert told him, “is an extraordinary gesture of friendship and it’s further evidence of your unending commitment to the security and well-being of our country.”
Bush went on to meet with Peres at his Jerusalem residence and offered his own upbeat homily, saying, “What happened here is possible everywhere. I suspect if you looked back 60 years ago and tried to guess where Israel would be at that time, it would be hard to be able to project such a prosperous, hopeful land.” Bush is scheduled to speak tonight at a conference for Israel’s 60th that will include figures like Henry Kissinger and Elie Wiesel.
No one likes to hear a sour note at a party, but yesterday Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas sounded somewhat less buoyant when he said,
“The Palestinian people won’t forget the right of return for the refugees. This is one of the rights of the Palestinian people. Our people have been living this nakba for 60 years, and they are continuing to struggle and defend themselves.”
He made this statement at an event in Ramallah marking Nakba Day — the official Palestinian day of mourning for the nakba (catastrophe) of Israel’s birth. He was saying that the creation of Israel in 1948 — not its conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967- was the basic catastrophe, and he was referring to a “return” of refugees and their descendants that all Israeli governments, left to right, consider a formula for Israel’s destruction.
Abbas said these words despite an extraordinarily persistent courting by U.S. and Israeli leaders during his three-plus years as president. The courting even included a grand conference at Annapolis last November to promote a Palestinian state, attended by the European Union, the Vatican, the Arab League, Russia, China, and others along with such peace stalwarts as Syria and Sudan.
Nor was the pursuit of that Palestinian state deterred by a 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll that found 70% of Muslims in the Palestinian territories justifying suicide bombings; the next highest total was Nigerian Muslims at 42%. Palestinian Muslims also scored highest -57%- in expressing confidence in Osama bin Laden’s leadership.
At present Imad Sa’ad, a Palestinian Authority police officer who gave Israel a lead on finding four accused Palestinian terrorists, is facing a sentence of death by firing squad. It was meted out to him in a PA court by a judge belonging to Abbas’s Fatah movement. According to the Oslo agreements, the PA is supposed to cooperate with Israel in fighting terrorism, not give death sentences to those who do so.
Although Israeli attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner has appealed to Bush to suspend $200 million in security assistance to Abbas and the PA until Sa’ad’s sentence is overturned, there is no word that Bush is interested in that suggestion.
Bush will be meeting in Jerusalem with both Olmert and Peres — but with Abbas (and other Arab leaders) only days later in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, since Abbas can’t publicly have anything positive to do with the nakba.
None of this, though, seems to affect Bush’s esteem for Abbas; he said just three weeks ago, when hosting him at the White House, that the PA president was “a man of peace … He’s a man of vision. He rejects the idea of using violence to achieve objectives.” He didn’t seem cognizant of Abbas’s statement last year that “We should put our internal fighting aside and raise our rifles only against the Israeli occupation.”
Bush’s praise of Abbas clearly isn’t just rhetoric, either, since Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has visited Israel and the PA 16 times in three years in a very determined quest to bring about that outcome of a Palestinian state.
Tony Blair is in the act too. Since stepping down as British PM in June 2007, he’s been official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East and has been busy here trying to prepare the groundwork for that same Palestinian state. Just this week he announced a package of new measures including giving the Palestinians increased security control of an area of the West Bank that’s larger than Gaza-despite the fact that Israel’s leaving Gaza in 2005 has brought on a real nakba of nonstop rocket attacks.
Some say that, with Olmert now up to his neck in a corruption scandal and Bush soon to become a full-fledged lame duck, all this is just a last, meaningless attempt by Bush to go down as a Middle East peacemaker. Even if the present efforts fizzle, though, what Bush has done — with help from wishy-washy Israeli leaders like Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — is make a Palestinian state a centerpiece, indeed an obsession, of international politics even though it’s the last thing the facts on the ground would warrant.
To see why, look at the cases of Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. After five years of hard American work in Iraq, it remains a violent, fractured society that no one should bet on becoming cohesive and peaceful let alone a Western-style democracy. Lebanon, which at its best showed real features of democracy and pluralism, is now teetering on the brink of becoming a fundamentalist terror-state.
As for Turkey, long held up as the model of a secular Muslim democracy, under Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP regime it’s been in a slide toward Islamism and authoritarian rule.
If this is the current condition of the three Middle Eastern Muslim states that folks have been most hopeful about, why the optimism about the Palestinian Authority and why the concerted push for it to become Israel’s (and Jordan’s) fully sovereign neighbor? Although Bush, Rice, Blair, and other Western leaders agree that Gaza under Hamas is a big problem, why (without making it clear how Hamastan is supposed to fit into the Palestinian-state vision) are they so gung-ho about the Abbas-led entity in the West Bank?
They don’t seem to think Abbas means it when he says he’ll never accept Israel as a Jewish state, or that he insists on the “right of return,” or that the population means it when they express admiration for suicide bombings and Osama bin Laden. They don’t seem to know or care that the PA educational system, which Abbas played a prime role in designing, has been systematically instilling these anti-Israeli and anti-Western attitudes since 1993 and that, moreover, they’re deeply rooted in the jihad principle of Islamic civilization as a whole.
They don’t seem to notice the constant terror attacks and attempted terror attacks by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — the “military wing” of Abbas’s own Fatah — nor ever ask Abbas any tough questions like: Don’t you have any control of these guys? Do you approve of what they’re doing? Why don’t you ever arrest any of them? Or in the rare cases when you do, why do they always get released or seem to escape?
If Bush, Rice, Blair, and the rest ignore such bigger pictures, then it makes sense that they ignore “details” like Abbas marking Naqba Day or one of his courts sentencing a Palestinian to death for fighting terror.
If Bush’s legacy is going to be that this entity is deserving of statehood no matter what, then everyone truly concerned about democratic norms and Israel’s defensibility should be doing their best to undo that legacy.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Tel Aviv. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/