IT'S NOT OFTEN that we agree with President George W. Bush. But his speech Monday calling for new leadership in the Palestinian Authority is one of those times. Bush deserves credit for clearly stating what no other American president has been willing to say: the Palestinian Authority needs a leader "not compromised by terror."
For decades, it was believed that stability, if not peace, between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could be achieved by giving land to the Palestinians. But negotiations at Camp David in 2000, during which then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak made extraordinary territorial concessions to Arafat - which the Palestinian leader rejected - showed such thinking to be wrong.
After Camp David, the Palestinians have sent suicide bomber after suicide bomber into Israel to kill and terrorize its citizens. So when Bush declared a war on terror in a September 20, 2001, address to Congress in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the US ("[The war on terror] will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.... From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime"), Prime Minister Ariel Sharon applied those principles to his own situation with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Under defensive military pressure from Israel, Arafat recently said he'd revisit the offer made at Camp David after all, as the Washington Times reported May 14.
Israel would be foolish to make any concessions to Arafat while the Palestinian terror campaign against Israel continues. Israel needs to make it clear, however, that it will make concessions on the issue of settlements in peace negotiations with a legitimately elected Palestinian leader operating under a new Palestinian constitution. As for Arafat himself, as liberal commentator Robert Scheer, writing in Salon, recently put it: "Arafat has failed the ultimate test of a revolutionary leader, which is to take his people past the stage of violence to that of self-governance.... Though he may share the blame with a cast of thousands, Arafat must step off the stage." It will be a real test of Palestinian sincerity to see if they can find and elect a leader who promises to end the suicide bombing and makes it clear that Israel has a right to exist.
In two rulings this month addressing capital punishment, the United States Supreme Court significantly narrowed the circumstances under which the death penalty can be applied. In Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held 6-3 that it is unconstitutional to execute anyone who is mentally retarded. There are around 300 people currently on death row who meet that standard, generally agreed to be anyone with an IQ below 70. And in Ring v. Arizona, the Court decided by a 7-2 margin that the death penalty can be applied only by juries and not by judges. Judges are solely responsible for death-penalty sentencing in Arizona, Idaho, and Montana, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org). In Colorado and Nebraska, three-judge panels make the decisions, and in Alabama, Delaware, and Florida, judges rule after receiving recommendations from juries. As many as 800 death-row inmates may have their death sentences lifted by the Ring decision.
The Phoenix has long opposed capital punishment and welcomes these developments. But while the decisions are a huge victory for opponents of capital punishment - taken together, nearly one-third of the approximately 3700 prisoners on death row may be spared thanks to these rulings - the death penalty is alive and well in this country. As long as justices like Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and William Rehnquist, the three dissenters in Atkins who think it's okay to put mentally retarded people to death, are appointed to the courts, the death penalty will remain legal. Opponents of capital punishment must continue to work on a state-by-state basis to fight this most cruel and unusual punishment.
All that said, we agree with the Atkins dissenters' suggestion that the Supreme Court should not base its opinions on popular sentiment, as the majority did.
Last week, Senate president Tom Birmingham exercised the power of his leadership position to postpone a vote on the odious Protection of Marriage ballot question that would amend the state constitution to ban marriage between same-sex couples. Was it manipulation of the democratic process? Sure it was. It's the sort of political gamesmanship we've grown accustomed to seeing from House Speaker Tom Finneran, who's used his influence to delay votes on domestic-partner legislation.
The move shows clearly the need for liberal Senate leadership to offset the socially conservative direction of the House. Some of the senators believed to be jockeying to replace Birmingham as Senate president - Linda Melconian of Springfield, Marian Walsh of Boston, Mark Montigny of New Bedford - are conservative. In some cases, as conservative as Finneran. This would be disastrous for the state.
Birmingham, who is running for governor, put the full weight and power of his office behind this move in support of gay civil rights. Some people may disagree with his actions. We don't. And when we compare them with the shady posturing adopted by those seeking to ban same-sex marriages, we welcome his action as a breath of fresh air. At a time when voters are waiting for candidates to define themselves more clearly, this is indeed a defining moment. Let's hope that as the gubernatorial campaign unfolds, others will take equally bold actions and clear-cut initiatives.
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