Saul Bellow once observed that a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. President Bush’s ill-advised trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank this week to promote a "two-state solution" would seem to underscore the wisdom of Bellow’s insight.
The presumed aim of Bush’s visit, the first of his presidency, is to revive the goals of November’s all-but-forgotten Annapolis summit. There the president imperiously decided that all that was needed for a final peace settlement to be reached between Israel and the Palestinians was for two leaders with no popular constituency on their respective sides to decide that it should be so. Bush duly met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and read from a statement in which the parties promised, not a little ambitiously, to resolve "all outstanding issues, including core issues, without exception" in 2008.
It all might have ended happily at that point, with both sides having savored their share of the international spotlight, were it not for Bush’s hopelessly naïve conviction that the grand promises of the summit had any foundation in reality.
That they do not is made tragically clear by the events of the past few weeks. In late December, two off-duty Israeli soldiers, Cpl. Ahikam Amihai and Sgt. David Rubin, were gunned down while hiking in the West Bank. At least of two of their murderers, Ali Hamid Dandanes and Amar Badad Khalim Taha, are Fatah operatives -- that is, employees of Abbas’ political organization. It is thus unsurprising that to avoid capture by Israeli security, both men turned themselves in to the PA’s intelligence service, where they received understanding treatment.
This is not news, exactly. The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, closely affiliated with Fatah, have continued to carry out terrorist attacks on Abbas’ "moderate" watch. But one is again left to wonder how the PA’s official tolerance for killers comports with President Bush’s professed view that Abbas "is a man devoted to peace" and that his faction is ready and willing to address Israeli security concerns.
For its part, the Bush administration has elected to look past the PA’s complicity in terrorism. Choosing hope over experience, the administration seems to have concluded that, for all their faults, Abbas and his organization are nonetheless the enemies of the Islamists in Hamas, and thus potential allies.
But this optimistic assessment is starkly at odds with Abbas’ pronouncement on January 1 that he is ready to "open a new page" by negotiating with the terrorists of Hamas. Showing an aptitude for the double talk in which his predecessor Yasir Arafat specialized, Abbas urged Hamas to accept the normalization of relations with Israel. At the same time, he called for a "partnership in the heart of the fatherland and around the struggle for its liberations," stressing that "no party should supplant another." Given that Hamas equates "liberation" with the annihilation of the Jewish state, Abbas’ appeal was more an inducement to terror than a condemnation of it.
No more propitious for the possibility of a final settlement is the history of the last sixty years. In that time, of course, the Palestinians, backed by their Arab patrons, repeatedly have rejected Israel’s right to exist, both as a geographic entity and as a majority-Jewish state.
Offered generous terms of settlement -- including Ehud Barak’s 2000 offer of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and 97 percent of the West Bank, as well as Palestinian control over East Jerusalem and $30 billion in compensation -- the Palestinians have, in Abba Eban’s famous phrase, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Loathe to come to terms with the reality of an Israeli state, they have placed their faith in leaders who sought to accomplish with terrorism and duplicitous public relations what Arab armies had failed to do with Soviet-made artillery.
President Bush boldly recognized the fact when, in 2002, he called on Palestinians to elect "leaders not compromised by terror." The 2006 election of Hamas should have been sufficient proof that Palestinians were not equal to the task. But instead of confirming Bush in his sober realism, the violent aftermath seems to have encouraged the president in the dangerous illusion that peace is within reach.
Dangerous is the only appropriate word. Whatever the merits of the "two-state" solution in the long run, the fact remains that now is the worst possible time to put this vision into practice. Gaza, left to the untender mercies of Hamas, is today one of the most violent places in the Middle East. So intense has been the rocket barrage of Israeli cities from "Hamastan" that Israeli troops in recent days have been forced to intervene to stop the endless assault.
Against this chaotic backdrop, the administration’s insistence that Israel turn over full control of the West Bank to the Palestinian authorities looks like a prescription for disaster. It is something the president would do well to keep in mind as he tours the territory under the kind of impeccable security that Israeli citizens will not be afforded once the West Bank becomes Palestinian domain.
President Bush legitimately can claim to be the most pro-Israel president in history. It would be a shame if he now sacrificed that impressive legacy for the promise of an illusory peace.