On Thursday President Bush met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office. At the conclusion of their meeting they made statements in the Rose Garden and fielded a few questions. The White House posted a transcript here.
I found the president’s comments dispiriting. President Bush described Abbas as “a man devoted to peace and to his people’s aspirations for a state of their own.” Looking through the statement for evidence of acts that, in Bush’s view, demonstrate that Abbas is a man devoted to peace, what do we find? According to President Bush, Abbas facilitated Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. I think it’s fair to say that that evidence is susceptible to differing interpretations. The remainder of Abbas’s initiatives cited by President Bush are verbal. He “ran on a platform of peace”; he has rejected terror and advocated one lawful authority. As to the latter, President Bush cryptically observes: “The United States, in cooperation with the international community, has helped you achieve this through the efforts of our senior U.S. security coordinator, General Kip Ward.”
Given the continuing operation of multiple non-PLO terrorist groups in addition to Fatah’s own terrorist groups in Gaza and the West Bank, I find the president’s statement mystifying. Whatever has been achieved, however, still leaves plenty for General Ward’s successor to do:
In the coming days, I’ll be naming our new coordinator to build on the progress General Ward has made. This person will take on an enhanced mission to help President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority carry out their responsibility to end terror attacks, dismantle terrorist infrastructure, maintain law and order, and, one day, provide security for their own state.
President Bush then addressed economic issues as part of “the way forward.” What actions are included in “the way forward”? Abbas has apparently agreed to accept billions of dollars of economic aid:
Quartet Special Envoy Jim Wolfensohn is coordinating a broad effort to generate economic and financial support from the international community for the Palestinian Authority, and he’s doing a good job. I’m going to continue to consult with our Quartet partners to ask Jim to extend his mission until next spring.
President Bush doesn’t pause to consider whether the past aid showered on Arafatistan has promoted peace. Even worse, however, are the rest of the specific acts marked out in “the way forward”:
It’s important that we make quick progress on the issues that Jim has identified as most critical for the Palestinian economy, including opening the Rafah crossing, connecting the West Bank [and] Gaza, improving the ability of Palestinians to travel in the West Bank, and beginning work on the Gaza seaport. These are all practical steps that will help the Palestinian economy grow and flourish.
These are all practical steps to be extracted from Israel; is there any prior or reciprocal obligation on the part of the Palestinian Authority? President Bush states:
In the short-term, the Palestinian Authority must earn the confidence of its peoples, by holding elections and having a functioning government that delivers economic opportunity. The Palestinian Authority must also earn the confidence of its neighbors by rejecting and fighting terrorism.
President Bush says nothing about the participation of terrorists in the election. Is that consistent with “fighting terrorism” or not? Moreover, the meaning of “fighting terrorism” is left unspecified, as is the fact that Abbas has taken no act to date to “fight terrorism.” We seem to be in the domain of happy talk, where words are cheap and hard truths left unsaid. Are words enough? They have apparently been enough to earn a couple trips to the White House and the accompanying red carpet treatment.
On the other hand, following Israel’s painful withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent savagery on display there, President Bush articulated some surprisingly specific demands on Israel:
Israel must continue to work with Palestinian leaders to help improve the daily lives of Palestinians. At the same time, Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its road map obligations, or prejudices the final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. This means that Israel must remove unauthorized posts and stop settlement expansion. It also means that the barrier now being built to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks must be a security barrier, rather than a political barrier. Israeli leaders must take into account the impact this security barrier has on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities.
What in turn does Abbas have to say? He celebrates his role in facilitating Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He demands further concessions from Israel and has the temerity to add “also a very important sensitive issue, which is the release of prisoners of freedom from Israeli jails.” And, oh yes, “the establishment of an independent, democratic Palestinian state, on all the territories occupied in 1967.” In short, Abbas seems to have in mind the strengthening of his hand for war.
His statement continues with a brief pat on his own back for having “banned armed demonstrations” and a reference to the “refugees” in Lebanon:
Our discussion of the overall situation in the region has afforded us the opportunity to point out what we reaffirmed repeatedly through the past few weeks on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization: We are determined not to interfere in domestic Lebanese affairs. We reiterate that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are subject to the authority and the laws of Lebanon as temporary guests awaiting the resolution of the refugee problem in the accordance with the international resolutions.
Abbas envisions a “way forward” that would serve nicely to put liberated “prisoners of freedom” back to work:
Peace requires a departure from the policies of occupation and the adoption of the principle of freedom. Peace requires departure from the policies of settlements construction, the collective punishment, unilateral acts that undermine your vision toward two states and replace that with progress towards negotiations. Peace and security cannot be guaranteed by the construction of walls, by the erection of checkpoints, and the confiscation of land, but rather by the recognition of rights.
Peace cannot be attained by the enforcement of discriminatory road policies and by the policies of imposition and creation of facts on the ground, but rather through belief in the principles of partnership, parity and mutual respect.
Well, thanks, President Abbas. I get it. Peace can be attained through rendering the other side incapable of defending itself.
There does not appear to have been much interest among the mainstream media in taking a close look at Thursday’s remarkable Rose Garden ceremony. I am aware only of the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, who focuses on Abbas’s reference to the “prisoners of freedom” (i.e., terrorists) held by Israel: “A history of violence.”
UPDATE: A reader refers us to Debkafile’s look inside the Oval Office meeting according to its mysterious “exclusive Washington sources”: “Bush to Abu Mazen: Palestinians must start helping themselves.” The Debkafile report cites President Bush’s answer to the question regarding the timeline for Palestinian statehood in support of its version of events.
UPDATE 2: Reader William Holl has directed me to this New York Sun story by Eli Lake: “Bush tells Abbas U.S. won’t have contact with Hamas.” Lake reports:
President Bush yesterday privately told his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, that while it was up to him as to whether terrorist groups could participate in upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections, America would have no contact with terrorists in his future government.