President Bush's speech on the Middle East was a disappointment to participants in a discussion at Washington's Brookings Institution. A Palestinian leader and a key supporter of Israel said it treated Palestinians too harshly, Israelis too lightly. In their opinion, the speech is a setback to peace.
Khalil Shikaki, professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, expected the president's speech to be promising, even uplifting. What he heard was a sustained, one-sided attack on Yasser Arafat as the main impediment to establishing a Palestinian state.
"By making Arafat's removal a precondition, the president has complicated the situation tremendously," he said. "I believe of all the things the president said, this is probably the most difficult issue that the administration will have to face, how to go about doing it?"
Most Palestinians support President Arafat, said Professor Shikaki, and the speech will make him more popular. Even if Palestinians somehow removed Mr. Arafat, they are offered nothing in return, other than a vague notion of a provisional state three years hence, as long as they abstain from violence in the meantime.
"There was nothing in what the president said that I believe provided hope for Palestinians. The state he spoke about seems to lack any real substance," he said. "There is no sovereign power, no contiguity. I am assuming that the president did not mean it this way, but I believe this is the way it will be perceived and will be perceived by the majority of the Palestinians."
The lack of any vision in the speech is alarming, said Professor Shikaki. Equally absent is a discussion of key issues. As for waiting three years for some kind of state, Palestinians are desperately counting the days they suffer under an oppressive Israeli curfew.
Damage limitation to this ill-advised speech is possible, added Professor Shikaki, if the Bush administration follows up with more involvement in the conflict; for example, helping Palestinians make the reforms demanded of them. But so far there is no sign of such involvement.
Jubilant Israelis have done some counting, said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. They have noted ten positives for Israel in President Bush's speech and not one negative.
"Judging by the reaction from politicians and press alike in Israel," he said, "the speech was universally viewed as not just pro-Israel but also pro-Sharon. To quote, [from an Israel columnist] 'The voice was Bush's, but the hand that wrote the speech was Sharon's. The prime minister can demand intellectual property rights.'"
Ambassador Indyk said he agrees with President Bush that Mr. Arafat must go, but what about something positive for Palestinians? They are told all terrorism must stop before statehood negotiations can start, a near impossible demand. And that state is so hazy it can hardly be imagined.
Mr. Indyk added the speech seems to give Ariel Sharon a free hand. "Taken in the context of the government of Israel's current decison to reoccupy seven of the eight major cities in the West Bank and the prime minister's indication that a major offensive in Gaza is about to get under way, the speech is interpreted across the spectrum in Israel as essentially a green light for Israel to defend itself as the prime minister sees fit. What he may see fit is to remove Mr. Arafat, said Ambassador Indyk. There would hardly be an objection in Washington.
Mr. Indyk said President Bush lacks a serious plan for the conflict. He is concerned with crisis management, not crisis resolution, and a deeper crisis may be coming. The speech will soon be overtaken by events, said Ambassador Indyk, and then the president will have to give another speech.