Hurray for Bush!

President Bush’s call for a change in Palestinian leadership as a step toward Palestinian statehood is being praised by American Jewish leaders and analysts as historic.

Some questioned how complete a road map Bush had laid out in his long-awaited Mideast policy speech June 24. (For speech excerpts, see below.) But Jewish leaders generally issued a sigh of relief that Bush overwhelmingly had placed the onus on the Palestinians to prove their commitment to peace before any peace process could move forward.

“None of the Jewish community’s anxieties were realized,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

In the weeks before the speech, Jewish groups had been concerned that Bush would recommend the quick formation of a Palestinian state in hopes of inducing Palestinians to stop their campaign of violence against Israel. Such a call, many Jewish groups warned, would be tantamount to rewarding terrorism, rather than repudiating it.

However, Bush presented a vision toward eventual Palestinian statehood that called for the ouster of the current Palestinian Authority leadership, fundamental reform in Palestinian institutions and a repudiation of the culture of violence and terrorism that the Palestinian Authority has tolerated. Bush called for Arafat’s removal after receiving information last week showing that the leader had authorized a $20,000 payment to a group that claimed responsibility for the most recent suicide attack in Jerusalem, The New York Times reported.

While never mentioning Arafat by name in his speech, Bush made clear that he considers Arafat’s removal from power a precondition to progress, a position that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has long advocated.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, described Bush’s call to oust Arafat as “historic,” saying, “For the leader of the world’s leading superpower to explicitly call for the Palestinian people to change their leadership is almost unprecedented.”

Harris said the Bush administration “connected the dots” on the Palestinian leadership’s ties to terrorism, after Israel provided extensive documentation of Arafat links to terrorist organizations, weapons-smuggling, payments to terrorists and financial support for the families of suicide bombers.

The president called on the Palestinians to elect new leaders “not compromised by terror” and said that once violence ended, the United States would support a Palestinian state. Long into the speech, Bush made some demands on Israel: pull the army back to its positions before the intifada began in September 2000, release tax money due to the Palestinian Authority and end settlement construction. However, he made it clear that such steps would be demanded of Israel only after the Palestinians had reformed their government and made clear their willingness to coexist peacefully.

Pressure was also placed on Arab states to end incitement against Israel, to denounce terrorist actions and to stop transferring funds and equipment to terrorist organizations targeting Israel. Bush also pledged additional humanitarian and financial aid to the Palestinians, from both the United States and international monetary groups.

Analysts saw the speech as the long-term vision for the Middle East that had been absent since the Oslo peace process collapsed at the end of 2000. Since Bush took office last year, many believed that his administration was handling situations on the fly, without a clear game plan.

“He has essentially created a post-Oslo framework,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He is making it clear that Palestinian aspirations for statehood are intertwined with reform and security.”

In the weeks before the speech, Arab leaders had pressed Bush to set forth a deadline by which a Palestinian state would be established. Jewish and Israeli leaders, on the other hand, called instead for benchmarks that would be used to judge Palestinian performance.

Bush’s speech clearly sided with Israel’s call for a performance-based plan, while mentioning that if the Palestinians were vigorous in their reforms, the process should be completed within three years. At the end of that time, however, the Palestinians would have only “provisional” statehood, with borders and certain aspects of their sovereignty to be defined in negotiations with Israel.

That was another disappointment for the Palestinians. They had wanted Bush to back their demand for a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Instead, Bush backed Israel’s interpretation of crucial U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which does not call for a complete Israeli withdrawal from land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Instead, it calls for a withdrawal to “secure and recognized” borders that the two sides would negotiate.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and others could no longer accuse the United States of not playing a leadership role and blame Israel for the plight of Palestinians.

“It’s not a reward for terrorism but a reward for the end of terrorism,” Hoenlein said. “It’s holding out hopes for a provisional arrangement and the ultimate possibility of a state, but conditioned on performance and meeting requirements.”

A senior administration official said that two suicide bombings earlier this month in Jerusalem, which killed 26 Israelis, made the president “more resolute” to seek alternative Palestinian leadership. “Finally, you have to say something has to change, something has to be different,” the official said.

Yet analysts say questions remain about the plan’s implementation. “What’s the follow-through?” asked Ted Mann, former president of the Israel Policy Forum and past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Bush noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell will “work intensively” with international leaders. There was no discussion of a new high-level trip to the Middle East or an international summit, which were both anticipated. A senior administration official told Jewish leaders that garnering international support would be key to implementing the president’s plans. He said that Powell soon will begin coordinating positions with Europe and Russia.

Giving a speech that reaffirms the diplomatic solutions to the conflict is important in and of itself, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Stephen Cohen, a national scholar for the Israel Policy Forum, said the three-year time frame that Bush envisioned toward a Palestinian state is a “good goal line.” Cohen, who joined Arab American leaders in calling for a more active U.S. role in resolving the conflict, stressed, “We need far more direct American engagement in order to meet that goal.”

Despite the widespread support for the speech, some Jewish officials and analysts were concerned. Bush’s speech was “dead on arrival” and was “the most foolish speech by an American president on the Middle East,” Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes said. Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum called backing a Palestinian state a “reward for terrorism.” He said, “It’s a very mischievous speech. It says to the Palestinians that what you have done has won you concessions of the United States.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author and past chair of Americans for Peace Now, said she was concerned by Bush’s call to replace to Arafat. “I don’t think America can dictate, ‘Dump your leader,'” she said. “I think the Palestinian legislature and the Palestinian people have to do that.”

Pogrebin also said the speech did not place enough pressure on Israel. “I don’t see where, if you were a Palestinian living with the barrel of an Israeli gun in front of you and tanks all around you, that you would see the light at the end of the tunnel here.”