Arabs’ Move

Thomas Friedman’s column this morning takes the form of an open letter from President Bush to Arab leaders:

I’m sure you’ve seen the news that Israel’s leader, Ariel Sharon, has decided to withdraw unilaterally from most settlements in the Gaza Strip and to relocate others in the West Bank. This presents a huge opportunity and a huge risk to Israel, to the Arab world and to us. We must work to shape it right.

Let’s start with the risks. Don’t think I’m happy about how this Sharon plan unfolded. Think about it: Last summer, the Palestinians put forward a new prime minister and security chief, Mahmoud Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan, as moderate alternatives to Yasir Arafat — just the kind of people I wanted to work with.

I urged Sharon to be forthcoming and try to strengthen Abbas’s hand, so he would have the credibility to deal with Hamas and Arafat. Sharon gave him virtually nothing on settlements or on easing Israeli checkpoints on Palestinians. On Palestinian prisoners, Abbas asked for an Israeli commitment to release large numbers of prisoners, which would have really given Abbas street credibility. Instead, Sharon released a few hundred, none of them big-name fighters and some just criminals. So Arafat easily destroyed Abbas by portraying him as a U.S.-Israeli stooge.
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So, now I come to you Arab leaders. Guys, Sharon isn’t the only one who didn’t lift a finger to help Abbas and the Palestinian moderates. You Arabs did nothing. But in truth, so did I. So here’s what I propose to make amends: You are holding an Arab summit this March. I want you guys to invite Sharon and me to attend.

Yes, you heard me. And I want you to present Sharon, face to face, with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace plan, which you’ve already adopted as an Arab League initiative: full normalization with Israel in return for full withdrawal from the territories.

I’m tired of you guys telling me what I have to do. If you’re not ready to present your own peace plan directly to an Israeli prime minister — which would electrify the whole process — then you’re just frauds and I’m not going to waste time with you. But if you present your proposal — which is the only way to activate the Israeli public and redirect the Sharon initiative onto a track that will boost all the moderates and America’s standing — then I’ll put the full weight of the U.S. government behind it.

It’s put up or shut up time, boys. Sharon, the bulldozer, is on the move. Either you act to redirect him, or we all get rolled.

While I agree that it’s time for Arab leaders to put pressure on the Palestinians if they’re serious about solving the problem–which is an open question–but I disagree with the premise that all sides are equally responsible. While I’ve hardly been a fan of Ariel Sharon, the fact remains that he was facing waves of suicide bombers spawned by a sick culture that’s willing to strap bombs to their adolescent daughters in order to murder random civilians. It’s rather difficult to maintain an open dialog in that circumstance.

FILED UNDER: Middle East
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.