It was five years ago that President George W. Bush delivered the speech that outlined his "vision" for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There had been some speculation that the President would mark the occasion by reprising his "vision" speech. I, for one, am glad that he did not. It was a disastrous speech that marked a radical change in U.S. policy toward the Middle East peace process – the consequences of which are still with us.
Hype having overtaken history, the actual speech delivered on June 24, 2002 has been forgotten.
What is remembered is the enunciation of support for a Palestinian state. What is forgotten are the bizarrely unrealistic and one-sided preconditions that the President imposed on Palestinians in that speech, that made a Palestinian state an impossible and unrealizable goal. What the speech reflected, in fact, was the victory of neo-conservatives over realists in the U.S. approach to the Middle East peace process – and with that, the end of the peace process, itself.
The speech, when it was delivered, was profoundly disappointing. To understand why, let’s set the stage for the time when the speech was delivered. A series of horrible terrorist attacks at the end of March, 2002 had resulted in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reoccupying the West Bank, surrounding and destroying Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. On April 4, 2002, Bush delivered what were his most balanced remarks on the Middle East to date. He expressed compassion and support for both Israelis and Palestinians, established benchmarks for both Sharon and Arafat, and announced that he was dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to restore calm.
With Powell in the region, neo-conservatives and the religious right directed so much fire at Bush that he abruptly changed course: absolving Israel, shifting the blame solely to Arafat, and calling Sharon a "man of peace." A senior State Department official who was in the Middle East traveling with Powell told me that Powell felt that he had had his "legs cut off" by Bush’s turn.
It was at that point that we were told that the Administration had a new Bush speech in the works. Weeks went by. We were told the speech went through twenty-eight drafts as it bounced back and forth between the White House and the State Department. The final version, as delivered on June 24, 2002, was not the speech the State Department had been expecting. After hearing the President deliver his remarks, one high level official who had worked on the speech told me "that was not the speech we drafted" and that he felt as if he had been "punched in the solar plexis."
The final product reflected two distinct and contradictory approaches, and moved awkwardly back and forth between the competing visions. There were parts of the speech that spoke passionately about Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian need to be free of occupation and to have a state of their own. But there was also a neo-conservative ideological overlay to the speech that ignored Palestinian realities and made the realization of their dreams nearly impossible. Most striking was the stark absence of any criticism of Israel – an element that had been present in Bush’s earlier remarks. That speech, five years ago, marked a decisive shift in U.S. policy to a position that placed all blame for the absence of peace on the Palestinians, their leadership and their lack of democracy.
Many commentators at the time noted that the speech contained no plan or roadmap for implementation; but it did include what in retrospect appear to be clear hints of what at least some of the President’s speechwriters had in mind. For example, there was this sentence, "If Palestinans embrace democracy, confront corruption and firmly reject terror, they can count on American support." Or this one, "The United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure."
In other words, in Bush’s vision, Palestinians could have a state, but only after "becoming a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty." How this was to become a reality while the U.S. turned a blind eye toward Israeli behaviors that fueled Palestinian despair and anger, or how the Palestinian Authority could govern with its capacities devastated by the Israeli onslaught – on these points, the speech was silent.
In fact, the tragic history of the past five years was, in effect, predetermined by this infamous speech. Israel was set free of its obligations, Palestinians who supported a negotiated settlement were weakened, and Hamas’ surge in popularity was assured.
At the time the speech was delivered, I wrote of the international reaction, noting that "European leaders are confused (probably a healthy sign). Israeli doves are depressed (a responsible sign). Arab public opinion is furious (a logical response) and Arab leaders who hoped against hope that the President would deliver, are now desperately trying to sort out the parts of the speech that are workable and acceptable (an understandable response).
"The tragedy in all this, of course, is while the world tries to make sense out of what just doesn’t make sense, more will die, more will suffer and hope will become and increasingly rare commodity." To that I add, five years later: Amen. And please, no more speeches.