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Free Speech

"The United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state, whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East.... And 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." These perfectly reasonable propositions were uttered by President George W. Bush in his speech in the Rose Garden on June 24. The speech was a vindication of Ariel Sharon's insistence that the eradication of terrorism is not a part of the peace process, but a condition of a peace process.

The Israelis should not interpret the speech as a green light for the entirety of the Likud agenda: The United States will almost certainly not look kindly upon any exploitation of the crisis for the purpose of increased Israeli settlement in the already inflamed territories. But George W. Bush was rightly and ringingly clear that Yasir Arafat and Arafatism--the view that the creation of a national state does not require the renunciation of political violence and the transition to a national life that suffices with politics--has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the United States. The moral debate about Arafat is over. He no longer fools anybody. (Well, almost anybody: The ranting old coward is still a romantic figure in Europe.) And if any doubts remained about the man's suitability for history, there he was in Ha'aretz last week, in the aftermath of another week of suicide bombing, helplessly watching Israeli troops swarm all over the West Bank as a consequence of the failure of his own leadership, announcing in an interview that he was now prepared to accept the peace plan that Ehud Barak offered him at Camp David two years ago. What is the Arabic word for chutzpah? How many people, Israelis and Palestinians, have to perish for this man's lack of magnitude? Arafat is fortunate that his people are so busy revering the martyrdom of their sons and daughters. Otherwise they might be martyring him.

The president's speech was not exactly momentous--it is not clear that the president is capable of momentousness; but it did contain one argument that is worth pondering. The president maintained that the birth of a Palestinian state must await the birth of Palestinian democracy. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders," he said, "leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty." The sentiments are the right ones, of course; but they are not, politically speaking, sufficiently sophisticated. Elections have often brought to power leaders with very dirty hands. If the Palestinians reelect Arafat in a free and fair election, will the United States reject the results of such an election? If so, then the United States will be violating the democratic principles that it is extolling. And what if Arafat--or, say, Marwan Barghouti--is elected and (hard as it is to imagine) proceeds to crack down autocratically on terror and to accept a territorial compromise with Israel, so that a two-state solution may finally become real? Would it be in Israel's interest to reject a genuine peace agreement with an autocratic Palestinian government? After all, the world is full of autocratic regimes that keep the peace.

The argument that democracy must precede peace may be a noble argument, but it may be also a callous one in a situation of emergency, when many innocent people are dying for the absence of peace. Surely a free Palestinian press is not as urgent an objective, morally and politically, as a cessation of Palestinian suicide bombing. Anyway, there are free Palestinian newspapers and the terrorism marches on. There is something about Bush's preference for democratization over peacemaking that seems doctrinaire, and easily exploitable by Israeli politicians who have for a long time used the ideal of democratization as a cynical way of thwarting all diplomatic progress. There is also something a little hypocritical about the president's Jeffersonian expectations of Nablus and Gaza: He expresses no such expectations about Riyadh and Cairo. And the United States was absolutely right to make war on the Taliban and the terrorists in Afghanistan with or without the endorsement of a loya jirga.

If Palestinian political reform is a genuine desire of the Palestinians, then it will proceed; and if it is not, then the American (and Israeli) attempt to bring it into being will only discredit it in the eyes of the people whose lives it is designed to improve. The corruption of the Palestinian Authority is not the problem for Israel and the problem for the world. The problem for Israel and the world is that the Palestinian Authority is complicit in a systematic community-wide policy of murder, and perversely refuses to accept its damn state.