Bush Presses Israel, Palestinians After Meeting with Mahmoud Abbas

Getting a fix on President Bush’s vision of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depends on how far into the future you want to look. In the short term, he expects Israel to clamp down on its settlement expansion and resume security and economic talks with the Palestinians.

Further down the line, he appeared to be less confident than ever about the timing of Palestinian statehood.

In his news conference Thursday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush outlined clear goals for the short term, and laid much of the burden on Israel, demanding an immediate easing of living conditions for the Palestinians.

“Israel must continue to work with Palestinian leaders to help improve the daily lives of Palestinians,” Bush said. His statement was seen as a clear rebuke to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision this week to suspend security talks with the Palestinians in the wake of the killings last weekend of three Jewish settlers.

He also said the Palestinians must do more to confront terrorists. “The way forward must begin by confronting the threat that armed gangs pose to a genuinely democratic Palestine,” he said.

Long-term, however, Bush appeared to be backing away from an earlier hope to see a Palestinian state by the end of his term in January 2009 and studiously ignoring Abbas’ appeals for a return to final-status talks.

“I believe that two democratic states living side by side in peace is possible, I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen,” Bush said when he was asked about his stated hope last year that he would see a Palestinian state before he left office.

That itself was a revision of an earlier deadline of this year, which he had outlined in 2002 and later became the basis for the “road map” peace plan, put forth by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

“And the reason I can’t is because there will be moments of progress and there will be moments of setback,” he said.

Throughout his remarks Thursday, Bush voiced a greater appreciation of the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than he publicly has before.

“I understand it’s hard,” he said at one point. “Things don’t happen overnight. Old feuds aren’t settled immediately. And it takes a while.”

He also alluded to an element in short supply after four years of violence — trust.

A lot of these issues that have been “very difficult for a long period of time become easier to resolve as there’s more trust between the parties,” Bush said. And trust becomes a permanent part of the political process “as action on the ground takes place.”

Such talk threw cold water on Abbas’ repeated pleas for a fast track to final-status talks.

In his remarks, Abbas urged Bush to revive “talks on permanent-status issues regarding Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders and water in order to reach, at the end, peace, which would allow for the establishment of an independent democratic Palestinian state on all the territories occupied in 1967.”

Bush would not take the bait, but Abbas still left with a few plums.

Bush was blunt about his demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion.

“Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its ‘road map’ obligations or prejudices the final-status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem,” he said.

“This means that Israel must remove unauthorized posts and stop settlement expansion.”

The U.S. president also was uncompromising on the barrier Israel is building to protect itself from security attacks. Israeli officials have insisted recently that Israel is doing all it can to keep it from impinging on the lives of Palestinians, but Bush didn’t appear to buy it.

“Israeli leaders must take into account the impact the security barrier has on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities,” he said.

He also backed a link between the West Bank and Gaza, reopening the crossing between Gaza and Egypt and reopening the Gaza seaport. Israel wants security guarantees in place before it agrees to any of the projects.

Bush also suggested he would use U.S. muscle to back his demands.

“We are holding people to account on the pledges that both the Palestinians and the Israelis have made on the road map,” Bush said. “And we do so publicly, and we do so privately.”

Bush also said he would extend the mandates of the U.S. economic and security envoys to the region, showing that he was not backing away from the region.

Bush sidestepped Israel’s demand that the Palestinians keep Hamas and other terrorist groups from participating in legislative elections in January.

On that score, he accepted Abbas’ commitment to keep “armed gangs” from disrupting the elections — which falls far short of a ban on Hamas. Abbas repeated a pledge to introduce legislation to disarm militias after the elections.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, had been lobbying Congress and the media all week to call for a ban on Hamas.

A congressional letter warning Abbas that failure to keep Hamas out of the elections could inflict “serious damage” on relations with the United States garnered the signatures of 49 lawmakers, including the entire leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives and the majority of the members of its International Relations Committee.

A State Department spokesman later suggested that Bush did not want to be seen as interfering in the Palestinian electoral process.

“From our perspective,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “how the Palestinian political process unfolds and evolves is a question for the Palestinian people.”

The United States would be hard-pressed to keep Hamas out of elections, considering that it turned a blind eye to armed militias running in recent Lebanese and Iraqi elections, said Robert Blecher, who heads a team seeking solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at Strategic Assessments, a Washington think tank.

“The United States has had a hard time coming to a position on this,” Blecher said. “It’s caught between a rock and hard place — there are pretty clear parallels.”

Israeli officials said Bush’s demands of Israel were expected. And they took heart in Bush’s emphatic endorsement of the success of Israel’s withdrawal last month from the Gaza Strip.

“It was a positive message,” one official said.

Bush called the withdrawal “a bold decision with historic significance.”

NEXT STORY