October 7, 2001


What's Wrong With
A Palestinian State

The West can't afford to be neutral between democracy and dictatorship.


On Dec. 9, 1969, Secretary of State William P. Rogers gave a speech at the Galaxy Conference on Higher Education in Washington, in which he laid out his views on the Arab-Israeli conflict. "A durable peace," the secretary said, "must meet the legitimate concerns of both sides. . . . To call for Israeli withdrawal as envisaged in the U.N. Resolution without achieving an agreement on peace would be partisan towards the Arabs. To call on the Arabs to accept peace without Israeli withdrawal would be partisan towards Israel. Therefore, our policy is to encourage the Arabs to accept a permanent peace based on a binding agreement and to urge the Israelis to withdraw from occupied territory when their territorial integrity is assured."

Thus was born what instantly became known as the Rogers Plan. The plan itself, which also offered vague formulas on the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees, proved as ineffectual as its author. Yet it furnished a blueprint for U.S. Near East policy that successive administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have followed ever since: a posture of even handedness between Arabs and Israelis, adamant rejection of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the view that "land for peace" is the only vehicle for a comprehensive resolution of the conflict.

One might think that 30-plus years worth of failed peace initiatives--including the 1982 Reagan Plan, the 1993 Oslo Accords, last year's Camp David summit and the subsequent Mitchell Plan--would be enough to persuade someone in the higher reaches of the State Department that there was something amiss with this paradigm. But as Henry Kissinger once observed, "When enough bureaucratic prestige has been invested in a policy it is easier to see it fail than to abandon it."

So it hardly comes as a surprise that the Bush administration, after initially vowing not to micromanage Mideast policy the way President Clinton did, appears to have reversed course. According to a report in the New York Times, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks the Bush team was plotting an intensive diplomatic initiative to revive final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And going one better than the Clintonites, the administration was also prepared formally to back the creation of a Palestinian state. On Tuesday, President Bush confirmed those reports when he declared, "The idea of a Palestinian state has always been a part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected."

On one level, such a commitment is groundbreaking. According to the Times, it would represent "the first time a Republican administration has backed a Palestinian state." In fact, it would be the first time any administration has done so. But on a deeper level, it is only the natural culmination of the Rogers Plan and its various successors, particularly the Oslo Accords. In this, it portends not just failure, but disaster.

The problem here has nothing to do with the moral right of the Palestinians to a state. Not even Ariel Sharon disputes that Palestinians are entitled to live under a government of their own choosing, where they can enjoy political freedom, personal security, and civil and property rights, provided they respect the rights of their Israeli neighbors to the same. Nor is the problem connected with the drawing of boundaries: Most Israelis would happily return to the pre-1967 borders if they could feel reasonably certain that doing so would bring an immediate and lasting cessation to terror attacks.

The problem, rather, has to do with the nature of a prospective Palestinian state, and the signal that American recognition of such a state sends to the Arab world at large. As anyone who has actually spent time in Palestinian areas knows, a Palestinian state would almost certainly be politically dictatorial and ideologically radical. This was true before the outbreak last year of the Al-Aqsa intifada; since then, the radicalization of the Palestinian population has only increased, with polls showing 75% popular support for suicide bombings. This is a state that cannot be trusted to govern itself democratically, much less respect the security of its neighbors--not just of Israel, it should be said, but of Jordan as well.

Worse yet is what such recognition would do to America's efforts to build a lasting anti-terror coalition in the Middle East. The Bush administration may now be gambling on the idea that recognizing "Palestine" would gain the U.S. some sympathy in places like Egypt without actually committing it to a follow through. But this merely purchases time. The Arab world would quickly become even more aggrieved with the U.S. if, after declaring itself for Palestinian statehood, it failed to live up to its commitments, however symbolic.

Meanwhile, Israel would come under ever-greater pressure to make compromises--"for peace," of course. But if last year's Camp David summit held one lesson, it's that the most Israel can concede is less than the minimum the Palestinian Authority can accept. It's hard to conceive of any negotiating formula the Bush administration can offer that would bridge this gap, short of putting a figurative gun to Mr. Arafat's head. This too may be in the president's plans. But by contemplating the recognition of a Palestinian state, Mr. Bush is doing the opposite, rewarding the terror tactics Palestinians have employed over the past year. This, of course, is an invitation to further terror.

In his speech to the Galaxy Club, Secretary Rogers failed to appreciate that Arab hostility toward Israel was not born in the 1967 war (even if Western hostility was), meaning that it would not cease with the return to the pre-'67 borders, much less the creation of a Palestinian state. He also made the mistake of attempting to remain neutral between totalitarian regimes and a democratic one, which history shows does nothing to appease the former while undermining the latter. Now the Bush administration seems set on doing the same thing.

The only way a workable peace treaty--and a viable Palestinian state--is ever going to emerge is if Israel and the U.S. confront Arab radicalism head on by showing that the West is not neutral between democracy and dictatorship, and that any resort to violence will be punished, not rewarded. If the president wants progress in the Mideast, he should return to his original script.

Mr. Stephens is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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