Ballot Box

Tell a Vision

When is a state not a state? When it’s Palestinian.

This afternoon, President Bush outlined his long-awaited plan for resolving the Middle East conflict. He gratified Israelis and dismayed Palestinians by demanding, as a condition of Palestinian statehood, a complete overhaul of the Palestinian leadership. But that’s just the most obvious caveat in Bush’s proposal. The raw deal for Palestinians isn’t the hoops they’ll have to jump through to get their prize. It’s the dubiousness of the prize.

Bush repeatedly described the state he envisions as “provisional.” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Secretary of State Colin Powell have also called it a “potential” or “interim” state. (Fleischer has a curious habit of saying that a Middle East settlement must offer “security” to Israelis and “hope” to Palestinians, as though hope were the equivalent rather than the opposite of security.) Bush’s aides see no need to apologize for not proposing an actual state. They figure they’ve shown plenty of courage by going as far as they have. “You now, for the first time, have a President of the United States who has held out that distinct possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state,” Fleischer emphasized two weeks ago.

Normally, when you grant people statehood, you deal with the leaders those people have chosen. Not in this case. “Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders,” Bush said today. Naturally, Bush demanded this more amenable government in the name of democracy. He also asked the U.S.-friendly dictators of various Arab countries, whose statehood he doesn’t dispute, to “work with Palestinian leaders to create a new constitutional framework and a working democracy for the Palestinian people.”

The White House keeps asserting that all parties in the conflict support Bush’s “vision” of a Palestinian state. It’s just that they don’t quite agree on how to get there. To maintain this veneer of agreement, the administration avoids specificity. When will the “provisional” state give way to a permanent one? “At some point in the future,” says Powell. Who will decide at what point Palestinian reforms are sufficient to merit statehood? “The President will wait … to see if the Palestinian institutions are going to form in a way that gives faith to the President and to the neighborhood that a viable government can be formed,” says Fleischer. What is the U.S. agenda for upcoming talks with the parties? “We have remained committed to the concept of moving forward with the concept,” says Powell. What immediate results does the United States expect? “The short-term goal is to figure out the way to get to the long-term goal,” says Fleischer.

And what exactly is the “provisional state” to which this process might lead? To begin with, Bush says, it will have “secure and recognized borders.” Bush and Powell have repeated this promise for weeks, using the firmness of the words “secure” and “recognized” to conceal the fact that they’ve never explained where those borders will be. “The final borders, the capital and other aspects of this state’s sovereignty will be negotiated between the parties, as part of a final settlement,” Bush said today. Beyond that, Powell has noted unhelpfully, “If it is going to be a state, it will have to have some structure. It will have to have something that looks like territory, even though it may not be perfectly defined forever.”

Despite its rhetoric, the administration hasn’t even pledged that these borders, wherever they may end up, will in practice be secure and recognized. On June 13, Fleischer was asked whether, if Israel sent tanks across the new Palestinian border in response to terrorism, the United States would consider it “an act of war.” Fleischer twice refused to answer the question. “That’s a hypothetical, and I’m not going to get into that,” he said.

Why is Bush’s plan so vague? Because it was conceived as a pretty picture, not as a solution. From the moment last fall when he first spoke of “a day when two states, Israel and Palestine, live peacefully together,” Bush and his aides have described this idea as a “vision.” The word, which Bush repeated twice in his speech today, is significant. A vision is something you imagine, not something you do. In this case, it’s something Bush wants Palestinians to imagine—”a political process on the horizon” to encourage them to build “the institutions necessary for peace,” as he put it on June 10. On June 13, Powell affirmed that the United States was trying to “give the Palestinians something to look forward to in the form of a state that will eventually come into being.” When asked at that day’s White House press briefing what Bush meant by “Palestine,” Fleischer replied, “The President thinks it is very important to send signals to the Palestinian people that they are worthy and deserving of a state.”

That’s what the offer of a “state” with no defined borders, powers, or timetable (and no right to be represented by its present leadership) is. It isn’t even a bone thrown to the Palestinians. It’s a picture of a bone. Bush’s father was notorious for confusing the photo op of a thing (“Message: I care”) with the thing itself. The son, too, seems to think that his words are equal to deeds. A month ago, when he was asked about progress in the Middle East, he noted with pride, “I gave a speech right here in the Rose Garden on April the 4th that said parties have responsibilities. … I’ve talked about a vision of two states.” Congratulations, Mr. President. You’ve done it again.