Bill of Benevolence

Maybe the U.S. should apply its "non-negotiable demands" to Israel and Arafat.


BEIRUT–Sitting in his Ramallah confinement, Yasser Arafat might contemplate just how much the U.S. has overlooked its stated principles in backing his authoritarian rule over the Palestinians.

He might even pull out George W. Bush's State of the Union address and entertain himself by reading the following passage: "America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance."

No U.S. administration would say otherwise. Yet in dealing with the actors in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the U.S. has long ignored Bush's bill of benevolence.

After Oslo, the U.S. encouraged Arafat to arrest anybody who failed to support peace talks with Israel. This not only included Islamist militants, who were denied equality under the law, but also secular nationalists, including moderate intellectuals. The American message was that the Palestinian people merited no better than a regime of thugs.

The U.S. also promoted a stifling Palestinian Authority, undermining the notion of limited state power. Arafat expanded his influence by conscripting tens of thousands of people into his police force and administration, as a means of dispensing patronage. Meanwhile, the corruption in his entourage exacerbated the poverty and indignities suffered by Palestinians, eroding Arafat's legitimacy and compelling him to become more aggressive in the interest of his own power.

The U.S. has been as indifferent to Bush's demands when addressing Israel. Since 1967 Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza, and in support of this occupation has turned well over a million Palestinians into a subject people. It has also routinely denied them equal justice, suppressed their free speech, and violated their property rights.

The Oslo process returned some territory to the Palestinians, leaving the definitive contours of a Palestinian entity up to bilateral negotiations. At Camp David in 2000 Israel made a generous, though never formalized, offer to Arafat on final statehood. The Palestinian leader rejected it, and has been criticized to this day for doing so. However, the best that Israel offered still included retaining swathes of occupied land and leaving unresolved the fate of a vast majority of Palestinian refugees.

The U.S. has always condemned the illegalities in Israel's occupation, while also defending Israel against those demanding an immediate withdrawal from occupied areas. This contradiction took root during the Cold War, when Israel was a valued U.S. ally. But times have changed, even if the bonds between Israelis and Americans endure.

So what can the U.S. do now? Certainly something different from what the administration has done in the past year. In this period, its policy has blended apathy and uninspired replication: apathy towards a conflict that neither Palestinians nor Israelis seem eager to end by compromise and uninspired replication in the administration's insistence on a roadmap for a resolution that none of the parties really believes in.

Bush did change course, momentarily, after September 11. He was persuaded by Secretary of State Colin Powell to advocate Palestinian statehood, and did so publicly twice last year, at the White House and before the U.N. General Assembly. He also sent an envoy to the region, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was greeted with a Palestinian suicide attack on his first visit to Israel. Zinni's mission has virtually collapsed amid the ambient violence.

However, something more fundamental is required. Reassessment of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is an option, even if the U.S. sees no immediate advantage in backing a new diplomatic initiative. The Middle East is a graveyard of righteous disputation, yet in the absence of an imaginative policy to end the conflict, the U.S. might best stick to principles. Why not the ones Bush listed in his address?

For ideas on how to proceed, Bush might learn from Israel's "new historians," an amorphous group of scholars, including Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, and Ilan Pappe, who in the mid-1980s began challenging Israel's founding myths. They did so by basing their arguments on a powerful premise: that Israel's behavior often contradicted the humanist principles they believed their state should epitomize.

The jury is still out on some of the conclusions of the "new historians." However, few can deny that the group has helped bring about a fundamental change in Israeli attitudes; the country's school curriculum was recently changed to provide new perspectives on Israel's recent past. This transformation was not only a tribute to the dynamism of intellectual subversiveness, it underlined that cultural principles often carry more weight than the diktats of practical policy.

Bush should remember this as he weighs U.S. policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and his country's natural take on such a confrontation. The president alleges that his principles are non-negotiable. In that case he should throw them into the Middle East arena so that all can determine whether he's true to his word.