.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A series of unfortunate events

Make No Mistake
By DAVID BROOKS

It was a series of unfortunate events.

How did we get to this sudden moment of cautious optimism in the Middle East? How did we get to this moment when Egypt is signing free trade agreements with Israel, when Hosni Mubarak is touring Arab nations and urging them to open relations with the Jewish state? How did we get to this moment of democratic opportunity in the Palestinian territories, with three major elections taking place in the next several months, and with the leading candidate in the presidential election declaring that violence is counterproductive?

How did we get to this moment of odd unity in Israel, with Labor joining Likud to push a withdrawal from Gaza and some northern territories? How did we get to this moment when Ariel Sharon has record approval ratings, when it is common to run across Israelis who once reviled Sharon as a bully but who now find themselves supporting him as an agent of peace?

It was a series of unfortunate events.

It was unfortunate that Ariel Sharon, whom tout le monde demonized as a warmonger, was elected prime minister of Israel. After all, as Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations reasoned in The New York Review of Books, 'The war Sharon is waging is not aimed at the defeat of Palestinian terrorism but at the defeat of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for national self-determination."

It was unfortunate that George W. Bush was elected and then re-elected as president of the United States. After all, here is a man who staffed his administration with what Juan Cole of the University of Michigan called "pro-Likud intellectuals" who went off "fighting elective wars on behalf of Tel Aviv." Under Bush, the diplomats agreed, the U.S. had inflamed the Arab world and had forfeited its role as an honest broker.

It was unfortunate that Bush gave that speech on June 24, 2002, dismissing Yasir Arafat as a man who would never make peace. After all, the Europeans protested, while Arafat might be flawed, he was the embodiment of the Palestinian cause.

It was a mistake to build the security fence, which the International Court of Justice called a violation of international law. Never mind that the fence cut terror attacks by 90 percent. It was the moral equivalent of apartheid, the U.N. orators declared.

It was a mistake to assassinate the leaders of Hamas, which took credit for the murders of hundreds of Israelis. France, among many other nations, condemned these attacks and foretold catastrophic consequences.

It was unfortunate that President Bush never sent a special envoy to open talks, discuss modalities and fine-tune the road map. As Milton Viorst wrote in The Washington Quarterly, this left "slim prospects" for any progress toward peace.

It was unfortunate that Bush sided openly with Sharon during their April meetings in Washington, causing the European Union to condemn U.S. policy. It was unfortunate that Bush kept pushing his democracy agenda. After all, as some Israelis said, it is naïve to export democracy to Arab soil.

Yes, these were a series of unfortunate events. And yet here we are in this hopeful moment. It almost makes you think that all those bemoaners and condemners don't know what they are talking about. Nothing they have said over the past three years accounts for what is happening now.

It almost makes you think that Bush understands the situation better than the lot of them. His judgments now look correct. Bush deduced that Sharon could grasp the demographic reality and lead Israel toward a two-state solution; that Arafat would never make peace, but was a retardant to peace; that Israel has a right to fight terrorism; and that Sharon would never feel safe enough to take risks unless the U.S. supported him when he fought back.

Bush concluded that peace would never come as long as Palestine was an undemocratic tyranny, and that the Palestinians needed to see their intifada would never bring triumph.

We are a long way from peace. But as Robert Satloff observes in The Weekly Standard, Israel's coming disengagements "will constitute a huge leap - both in psychology and in strategy - rivaling the original Oslo accords in historic importance." And the U.S. is already raising millions to help build a decent Palestinian polity.

We owe this cautiously hopeful moment to a series of unfortunate events - and to a president who disregarded the received wisdom.