Parsing Bush’s words

President Bush speaks to the media on Jan. 10 in Ramallah. (White House photo by Chris Greenberg )

President Bush speaks to the media on Jan. 10 in Ramallah. (White House photo by Chris Greenberg )

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Picking apart President Bush’s summarizing of his Palestinian-Israeli peace brokering is a little like reading the fine print in the nutritional information on comfort food: There is empty puffery, to be sure, but there are also nuggets of substance.

Bush, speaking Thursday at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, was summing up two days of working meetings with the leaders of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, his first presidential visit to the region.

Much of what Bush put forward was not new or was symbolic, but there were a few groundreaking items, including his clearest call yet to the Israelis to freeze settlement expansion and a call for compensation for Palestinians dispersed after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Bush opened by reaffirming four old commitments:

* to the “road map,” the vision of Palestinian statehood and an end to terrorism he first outlined in 2002;

* to his approbation of the Arab League peace plan of the same year;

* to his call last year for institution building to bolster the government of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president Bush believes to be the best chance for peace; and

* to the peace process that was relaunched in November in Annapolis, Md., where Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to meet regularly to resolve impasses in talks.

If anything was different here, it was Bush’s insistence on routine meetings. Abbas and Olmert have met just twice since the end of November, most recently on Tuesday, the day before Bush arrived.

“I called upon both leaders to make sure their teams negotiate seriously, starting right now,” the president said. “I strongly supported the decision of the two leaders to continue their regular summit meetings because they are the ones who can, and must, and I am convinced, will lead.”

Bush also reiterated his support for Israel as a Jewish state, and called again on Arab states to begin the process of recognizing Israel.

“I call upon the Arab countries to reach out to Israel, a step that is long overdue,” he said. “The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.”

On the record, Israel and pro-Israel Jewish groups insist both points are critical to getting Arabs to understand that Israel is here to stay. But off the record, Israeli officials say that earlier Palestinian recognition of Israel already affirms their acknowledgment of its Jewish character.

The same officials point to burgeoning trade relations with the Arab world as a harbinger of full relations sooner rather than later.

Bush emphasized that terrorism must stop and expressed “America’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s security,” a commitment Israelis already appreciate in the form of $3 billion in annual defense assistance.

Within the space of a couple of sentences Bush appeared to contradict himself by invoking two years with very different meanings to both peoples: 1949 and 1967.

“The point of departure for permanent-status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967,” he said.

But then Bush added: “While territory is an issue for both parties to decide, I believe that any peace agreement between them will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.”

How does one honor 1967 lines while adjusting 1949 lines when they are essentially the same thing?

Both sentences speak to each people’s most vulnerable sensibilities: Palestinians who now accept Israel’s existence as it was established in 1948, grudgingly or not, are loath to extend such recognition to the territories it won in the 1967 Six-Day War. For Israel, 1949 evokes a vulnerable, slim state in perpetual existential anxiety.

An “end to the occupation that began in 1967″ acknowledges the Palestinians’ sense that relinquishing parts of the West Bank goes too far.

But it does not count out land swaps that recognize the reality of major settlements abutting the “Green Line” and that protect Olmert from the prospect of evacuating hundreds of thousands of settlers instead of the tens of thousands that he has suggested he is ready to undertake.

Here, in fact, Bush moved beyond his April 14, 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the first time Bush effectively recognized the major settlements. In the 2004 letter he said such recognition is “realistic”; here he says it is “required.”

Still, it may be hard to reconcile the two visions. Within minutes of Bush’s statement, his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, was having trouble with it in a roomful of reporters.

“What that’s actually going to look like – how much territory, is it all going to go back, is it less than all, how much – all that’s going to have to be negotiated,” Hadley said. “But it is important to have some principles and concepts, and to get some narrowing of the parties’ understanding and emerging agreement on those principles when you go into a negotiation to do the details.”

Bush on Thursday also made his first foray into the toughest issue involved in any permanent-status negotiations: Jerusalem. But he did so without advancing any substantive proposals like those laid out by President Clinton in his own final year in office.

“I know Jerusalem is a tough issue,” Bush said. “Both sides have deeply felt political and religious concerns. I fully understand that finding a solution to this issue will be one of the most difficult challenges on the road to peace, but that is the road we have chosen to walk.”

The most substantive shift in Bush’s statement dealt with the issue of settlements and refugees.

Bush’s earlier “road map” called on Israel to freeze settlements, but almost as an afterthought at the end of the section describing the first phase; most of the section addressed Palestinian security requirements. The 2004 letter did not mention such a freeze. That reinforced Sharon’s contention that the first phase was sequential: End terrorism, and then deal with settlements.

Bush’s statement Thursday gave each aspect equal weight.

“Neither party should undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudices the final-status negotiations,” he said. “On the Israeli side, that includes ending settlement expansion and removing unauthorized outposts. On the Palestinian side, that includes confronting terrorists and dismantling terrorist infrastructure.”

Bush also for the first time anticipated compensation for Palestinian refugees. The so-called right of return for Palestinians who fled or were chased from their homes upon Israel’s creation has been another thorny issue that Israelis see as a non-starter and a threat to its existence.

“I believe we need to look to the establishment of a Palestinian state and new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue,” he said.

In his 2004 letter, he spoke only of their return to a Palestinian state.

If the substance of the statement seemed weighted to the Palestinians, Bush could get away with it because of his record of friendship with the Israelis – a point Hadley had put forward in a pre-trip briefing when he said the president’s pro-Israel record “built an enormous confidence in the Israeli government in the president.”

Indeed, Bush stressed his commitment to Israel’s security several times.

“Security is fundamental. No agreement and no Palestinian state will be born of terror,” he said. “I reaffirm America’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s security.”

Left unmentioned in the statement was the status of the Gaza Strip, currently controlled by Hamas, the terrorist group that continues to enable the shelling of southern Israel.

At other points in his tour, Bush said he sees a deal coming before statehood. That way, he reasons, a deal negotiated by Abbas – who rejects Hamas as a usurper – could be put to the Gazans.

Bush says he is “confident” the Gazans would accept a negotiated settlement, although that is far from certain. Loyalties to Hamas fluctuate in Gaza, and it is not clear that Hamas would allow a referendum or new elections to take place in any case.

Olmert acknowledged that commitment in a joint appearance with Bush on Wednesday, agreeing that the time to deal with the settlements issue was the present.

“Thank God we can conduct political negotiations when the largest and most important power in the world, and the most important for us, is headed by such an important friend of Israel,” Olmert said. “We have no interest in delaying matters.”

After Bush’s summary statement on Thursday, Israeli officials welcomed it as “consistent with understandings between us and the administration.”

For his part, Abbas was clearly pleased with the visit, saying in a joint appearance with Bush, “All the issues are in agreement. We are agreed on all topics. All topics are clear.”

One outcome of Annapolis was that Bush persuaded both sides to make the United States the arbiter of an agreement. And with his visit this week, the president made clear he expects such an agreement within a year.

“The establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue,” he concluded, pointedly using the term “Palestine.”

While he first used the term in his early days in office in 2001 – the first American president to do so – he has rarely used it since.

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