Published on Tuesday, November 9, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
The death of the father of Palestinian nationalism. The re-election of a U.S. president widely reviled in the Middle East. A confluence of events that would seem to portend disaster for the Palestinian cause and a new wave of antipathy for the U.S.
But in a strangely twisted way, the demise of Yasser Arafat and the victory George W. Bush might – just might – open the door wide enough to generate a very dim ray of light at the end of a pair of very long and dark tunnels. But only if this administration demonstrates an understanding of Muslim perceptions and a style of pragmatic global leadership absent to date.
The current situation is grim. The wellspring of goodwill toward the U.S. among Arabs and Muslims immediately after 9/11 has been transformed into a cesspool of anger and hate. Americans knowledgeable about the Muslim world can only shake their heads in despair at the prospect of four more years of the same policies that brought us to this place. Talk of “public diplomacy” efforts to “win hearts and minds” seems a joke.
Why then is the Middle East media not full of vitriol at the results of last week’s U.S. presidential election? The answer was summed up most colorfully by a Hebron vendor quoted on al-Jazeera’s website: “As far as we are concerned, the difference between Bush and Kerry is like the difference between a yellow scorpion and an equally poisonous brown scorpion.”
Arabs and Muslims had noted that throughout the campaign, as a Turkish columnist pointed out, Kerry “made an incredible effort to show that he is even more pro-Israeli and pro-Jewish than Bush.” In fact, on the eve of the election, the largest Palestinian newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, predicted that, “If Kerry wins, Arabs will discover that he is worse than his predecessor.”
Palestine has always been the prism of pain through which Arabs viewed America. And it is precisely because it plays such a symbolic role that the issue of Palestine holds the key to reversing the seemingly insurmountable tide of anti-Americanism that continues to sweep the globe.
No other policy action would have such a broad and deep impact on Arab and Muslim attitudes than a serious, concerted and even-handed American initiative to achieve a balanced solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. That does not mean just more pressure on the Palestinians at a time of weakness. But rather, something tangible that will strengthen the hand of moderate Palestinian leaders.
George W. Bush is the first president in U.S. history to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. But that important piece of policy has been undermined by what followed: a blizzard of polarizing rhetoric, the fallout from Iraq and an absence of serious diplomacy.
In his first news conference after the election, the president reiterated his verbal commitment to a Palestinian state. In that same session with reporters, he also vowed to begin spending his political capital.
As a second-term president, Bush is freed from many of the domestic political constraints that surround policy toward Israel. At the same time, the death of the Arafat ushers in an uncertain new era in Palestinian politics that offers huge opportunities and huge dangers. I will leave it to others to apportion blame for the collapse of the Oslo peace process; the bottom line is that Sharon and Arafat were old and bitter enemies, and a genuine settlement as long as both were alive was all but impossible. Arafat’s passing creates a void in Palestinian leadership, but it also creates a potential opening.
When it comes to the Middle East, Bush’s “political capital” resides in the Bank of Israel and was earned at tremendous cost to America’s standing in the Muslim world. Now is the time to balance the ledger, reduce the deficit, and undermine the extremists who would collect that debt with American lives.
“I think it’s very important for our friends, the Israelis, to have a peaceful Palestinian state living on their border. And it’s very important for the Palestinian people to have a peaceful, hopeful future,” the president said in his news conference.
Whether or not George W. Bush believes that is immaterial. Nor does it matter. A concerted and balanced effort to resolve the Palestinian crisis is a pragmatic and self-interested policy vital to U.S. long term security.
The achievement of this goal so dear to Arabs and Muslims alike is the only foreseeable way to begin to drain the cesspool of hatred in which terrorism breeds, give hope to the vast silent majority of so-called “moderate” Muslims across the region whom we have alienated and who are the true bulwark against radicalism, and finally embody the values of equality, dignity and freedom we so frequently espouse.