Indecent Proposal

All indications suggest that President Bush's anticipated peace plan for Palestinians and Israelis will only deepen the confusion regarding U.S. policy.

Conflicting and contradictory statements from senior officials have left people throughout the region, and many in the United States, at a loss in trying to make out what the administration plans to do.

Now Bush is expected to recommend the creation of an "interim" Palestinian state as the key element in ending 20 months of carnage. Apparently he will propose taking the status quo of nominal Palestinian rule in 40 percent of the West Bank and renaming it a state, although it would not have the rights and responsibilities of an actual state. This idea is not simply a nonstarter, it is nonsense.

Interim independence and partial sovereignty make as much sense politically as a woman being somewhat pregnant. Independence and sovereignty are either fully realized or meaningless.

Much the same may be said about the president's repeated calls for the Palestinian Authority to become democratic. While Palestinian reforms are clearly needed, it is absurd to speak of creating a democracy among noncitizens of a nonstate under a foreign military occupation and without meaningful sovereignty.

What is available under such conditions is, at best, the democracy of a high school student council, not that of a free people in a sovereign republic. Americans are heirs to a grand tradition of insight about the basic requirements of liberty and independent self-government -- concepts that are casually betrayed by the facile blather about democracy without citizenship.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian extremists are busy ensuring that the conflict deteriorates to the point where no plan will stop the killing.

The intensity, viciousness and frequency of Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli civilians have only increased as a result of Israel's recent rampages and the sacking of many West Bank cities. Israel's plan, announced Wednesday, to reoccupy Palestinian-ruled areas is not a change of policy; it's a continuation of Israeli behavior over the last five months. More of the same will meet with just as little success.

And Israel's new "security fence" is another chimera offered up by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who continues to feed his people the illusion that the Palestinian uprising can be crushed and the occupation then continued in peace and security.

According to numerous reports, Sharon told a closed meeting of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that there would be no peace deal for at least 10 years; that Israel was prepared for a 100-year struggle; that a Palestinian state was out of the question any time soon; and that the key to Israel's security was 1 million new Jewish immigrants.

The irony is that, in spite of the ascendancy of radicals on both sides, there is much for a genuinely committed White House to work with.

The Palestinians still have a secular leadership that is committed to establishing an independent state alongside Israel and that is not, as many falsely claim, dedicated to its destruction. A recent working paper presented to the Bush administration by senior Palestinian officials reiterates several far-reaching concessions made in the 2001 Taba talks regarding borders, Jerusalem, demilitarization and refugees.

The majority of Israelis are still in favor of a two-state solution, and serious progress would surely revive the dormant Israeli peace movement. The plan forwarded by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and adopted by the Arab League provides an excellent basis for multi-party talks designed to create a permanent peace based on total Arab recognition of Israel, provided the occupation ends.

Most important, the Bush administration can proceed on the basis of its own stated positions --including support for an independent Palestinian state -- which, if translated into proactive policies, would constitute a decisive intervention on behalf of peace. What Bush needs to do is embrace his own vision, base U.S. policy on this vision and create a practical plan to bring it quickly into effect.

Despite the extremists, such a policy would enjoy powerful support from a majority of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, as well as other Arabs. It would offer the only real chance in the foreseeable future to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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