The message of most of the world to President George W. Bush about Middle East peacemaking does not appear to be getting through: It's the occupation. It's the occupation. It's the occupation.
Somehow, Bush is still laboring under the misguided belief that the major issue is Palestinian democracy. On Dec. 1 in Canada, he backtracked on his own road map to peace.
"Achieving peace in the Holy Land," he said, "is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement. This approach has been tried before without success. As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy."
In fact, Bush's own road map calls very clearly for a freeze on settlement activity to take place simultaneously with Palestinian security measures. If the president cannot provide potential Palestinian negotiators with some glimmer of hope for American evenhandedness, then they will come to see further negotiation as pointless.
In effect, such open American acquiescence in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans for the West Bank will consign both Palestinians and Israelis to more misery and bloodshed.
American taxpayers hand over good money for the president to receive solid advice from top advisers. In good conscience they should not allow the president to appear so totally unaware of the fundamental grievances of the Palestinian people.
By his words in Canada - and a White House visit by Natan Sharansky, the Israeli cabinet minister whose writings on the cleansing power of democracy seem to have influenced the administration's thinking - Bush indicated that the major issues before him are Palestinian democracy and economic development.
Yet even were the Palestinians to develop the highest functioning democracy in the world with their elections on Sunday, they would still not be free. Freedom from occupation, in Palestinian eyes, rightly trumps elections. And it certainly trumps economic development.
Make no mistake, both are important. But for any Palestinian, the major issue is how to get out from under Israeli subjugation.
What is needed now is clear language from the other three members of the so-called quartet - the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. And Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain must find some bark. He has been played by this president time and again.
The other members of the quartet must insist that Bush not forever seek new reasons for inaction. The death of Yasser Arafat - who while he lived was the ever-handy excuse for Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for doing nothing constructive - should make new opportunities more difficult to skirt.
Instead, the president seems content to flit from roadblock to roadblock - of his own making. With Palestinian elections going forward, the president should seize the moment to speak not just of democracy but of Palestinian freedom and an end to the Israeli occupation. Unfortunately, all signs now available suggest that Bush, increasingly beholden to pro-Israeli fundamentalist voters, will not make any such call.
Middle East peace calls for strong leadership from an American president willing to stand up and say that not only must Palestinian terrorism end, but that the Israeli occupation and the human rights violations that go along with it must end as well. An appropriately courageous president would also note that the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the last 56 years must be justly addressed.
Bush, to date, has lacked the courage to speak hard truths to our Israeli allies. Perhaps even more disturbing is that at a time of real opportunity, he is backpedaling on previous road-map requirements on Israel in favor of exclusively pressuring the occupied Palestinian people.
This is not moral leadership.
Michael F. Brown is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Partners for Peace.
© 2005 IHT