WASHINGTON (JTA) – The message from the White House on the eve of President Bush’s first presidential visit to Israel is that his staunch support for the Jewish state has set the stage for peace – and given him room to exert some pressure on Jerusalem.
Bush launches an eight-day tour of the region on Wednesday, beginning with three days in Israel and the West Bank and continuing to Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
In a Jan. 3 interview with Reuters, Bush said he would press Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank, considered by Palestinians to be the principal obstacle to peace.
“I will talk about Israeli settlement expansion, about how that is, that can be, you know, an impediment to success,” he said. “The unauthorized outposts, for example, need to be dismantled, like the Israelis said they would do.”
The next day Haim Ramon, the Israeli deputy prime minister, said such a crackdown on unauthorized outposts could come as early as next week.
During a pre-trip briefing on Jan. 3, Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, also said settlements would come up. He praised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for pledging to tackle the issue.
“I think it’s interesting that Prime Minister Olmert, in his comments this week, addressed this issue of settlements in terms of how – that there would be no additional confiscations, no new settlements and no confiscation of land, that sort of thing – no expansion of settlements,” Hadley said. “So it is an issue. It is one we’ve talked about and is an issue that will be part of the discussions over the implementation of the ‘road map.’ “
A standoff over settlement construction would represent a rare public break between Washington and Jerusalem during Bush’s two terms in the White House, and could raise unpleasant memories of the first President Bush and Israel feuding over settlements.
But, the White House argues, the current president’s unflinching support for Jerusalem’s tough anti-terrorist measures will go a long way toward smoothing over any disagreements.
One of the things that the younger Bush “did was he made it very clear that there would be no compromise with terror, and the use of violence against innocents is not justified by any cause, and that any state – including Israel – had the right to defend itself against terror,” Hadley said. “That built an enormous confidence in the Israeli government in the president.”
Hadley downplayed expectations of a breakthrough, noting for instance that Bush would meet separately with Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president.
“It’s probably going to be a series of bilateral meetings,” Hadley said, counting out the prospect of a trilateral summit. Bush has no plans for a major address during his time in Israel – just a speech in the United Arab Emirates.
At the Jan. 3 briefing, Hadley was asked to challenge criticism that Bush neglected the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in his first seven years in office, waiting until last November to relaunch talks in Annapolis, Md.
In response, Hadley cited as other building blocks Bush’s isolation of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader who never entirely eschewed terrorism, and the U.S. leader’s open advocacy of Palestinian statehood, a first for a president, although President Clinton came close to doing so.
“What we now see is the emergence within the Palestinian community, in the form of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, of leaders who are committed to peace and are willing to negotiate with Israel and understand the importance of fighting terror, and that terror will never be an avenue to get a Palestinian state,” he said.
Hadley acknowledged some missteps by the Bush administration, including insisting on Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 that resulted in Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist terror group, taking power. He said that had a deleterious effect on the Bush policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
“I think the election of Hamas in the Palestinian elections gave a number of countries pause as to where this was heading,” he said. “There has been, I think, concerns in that respect.”
Hadley said the White House would press Congress to approve $20 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies, arguing that the sales were critical.
“We think they’re important as a signal of long-term U.S. commitment to the region and support for our friends and allies in the region,” he said. “It’s an important piece of our strategy in the region.”
Hadley suggested that Bush would have tough words for the Egyptians over their failure to stop arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip, which is now controlled by Hamas.
The national security adviser expressed understanding of Egypt’s humanitarian concerns in allowing some Gazans to cross its territory to complete the Muslim hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
“There are also people living in Gaza who wanted to participate in the hajj and a way needs to be found for them to do so,” Hadley said. “On the other hand, we also see that Gaza is a place where Hamas and others reside and are building up the capacity to frustrate the hopes in the region for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“And so everyone in the region has a right and should be concerned about the flow of weapons and other instruments of war into Gaza that could be used to frustrate the opportunity we now have for peace.”
In case the Egyptians didn’t get the point, Hadley added, “It is a subject that not is only just an Israeli problem, but I would say to you, all the countries in the region: Palestinians are concerned about that problem, the Egyptians need to be concerned about the problem.”