President Bush delivered a major speech on the Middle East crisis Thursday, making demands of both Palestinians and Israelis to end the conflict. He said Secretary of State Colin Powell will go to the region next week in a renewed U.S. effort to find a peaceful solution.
The reaction of Palestinian supporters to President Bush's speech appears to be positive.
The president has adopted some of our positions, says Khalil Jahshan, vice president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). He and other American Muslim leaders met with Secretary of State Colin Powell the day before the speech. "We were delighted to see the administration finally focusing on the fundamental issues," said Mr. Jahshan. "We endorse his call for an end to settlements, showing respect for the Palestinian people, ending terrorism, easing road blocks and closures. These are all points we have raised with the administration in the past."
The president's comment on Israeli settlements is significant, says Jean Abinader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, since the Israeli government has resisted any curtailment of these deeply resented communities in the West Bank.
"If he can get the Israeli government to officially adopt an attitude that settlements will stop and put a time frame on it, then it gives us part of the political solution we need to get the Palestinians to be serious about reducing the violence and coming to the table," said Mr. Abinader.
The president is also right about terrorism, says Mr. Jahshan. His organization opposes it in any form, including Palestinian suicide bombers. "ADC has had for many years a consistent position that all forms of politically motivated acts of violence against civilian targets, regardless of the identity of the victim or the perpetrator, whether they are committed by the Palestinian side or by the Israeli side, are condemnable," he said.
The response to the speech of Israelis and their supporters seems more subdued. For David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, the president struck most of the right notes, but some commentators have over-reacted. "As a result, the speech is being described as a major new departure for the administration and a big victory for the Arab world. I do not believe that is the case," he said. "If it is, it would be sad because it would mean that terrorism pays."
Mr. Harris says the Bush administration is determined to have the Powell trip succeed because Vice President Cheney's visit to the region was less than successful.
But he adds Mr. Powell will not succeed if he tries to reopen negotiations with Yasser Arafat, who has lost the confidence of Israelis and their supporters. "He has been very much discredited over the last 18 months, and nothing he has done of late reverses that," he said. "So yes, to a peace process, and yes, to a long-term two-state solution by all means, but how we get from here to there remains a mystery to me."
Mr. Harris says the president was not advancing new U.S. policies in his speech, but he was clearly putting more emphasis on the issue of Israeli settlements. "By choosing to focus on it at this moment in time was clearly a message to the Arab world that the President is listening to them and understands some of their concerns," said Mr. Harris. "In terms of calling on Israel to withdraw its forces from the West Bank now, that remains to be seen. The question is all in the timing."
Mr. Jahshan says Secretary Powell's heart is in the right place, and he has a solid grasp of the issues. Even so, says Mr. Harris, his trip is a risk because feelings are inflamed and the stakes are extraordinarily high.