Israeli officials had mainly upbeat reactions to President Bush’s speech opening the historic Middle East peace conference here Wednesday.
Their worst fears did not materialize.
Speaking in broad terms, the U.S. president did not call for a freeze on Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank while peace talks are under way; nor did he refer to the explosive issue of East Jerusalem’s status.
But some of his remarks were sufficient to etch tension on the face of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is heading the 14-member Israeli delegation. He looked on grimly as Bush called for giving the Palestinians “meaningful control over their own lives and fate.”
He alternated between tightly clutched hands and stubbornly locked arms when the president reminded the assemblage that U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 are the basis of the upcoming bilateral negotiations.
The resolutions call on Israel to trade territory for peace, which Shamir repeatedly has ruled out.
Speaking after Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez Marquez welcomed the delegates to Madrid, Bush said, “We believe territorial compromise is essential for peace.”
That could not have pleased Shamir, who has vowed Israel will give up no additional territory for peace. Nevertheless, the Israelis had positive things to say about Bush’s remarks.
NOT MERELY A CESSATION OF WAR
Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a member of the Israeli delegation, praised the president for stressing that peace, not simply non-belligerency, was the goal of the conference and could be reached only by direct negotiations.
The Palestinian and Arab state delegations also seemed basically pleased with Bush’s speech, though they regretted that he had not urged Israel to stop settlement-building and did not challenge the status of Jerusalem, which Israel regards as its indivisible capital.
If Bush avoided such sensitive issues, his conference co-host, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, addressed the conference opening in even broader generalities.
Clearly the junior partner of the United States in this enterprise and apparently more concerned with the uncertain future of his vast homeland, Gorbachev nevertheless offered encouraging homilies.
“Today we have a unique opportunity, and it would be unforgivable to miss this opportunity,” he said.
Echoing Bush almost verbatim, he said, “I am speaking of peace rather than mainly a cessation of the state of war, and a durable peace implies the implementation of and respect for the rights of the Palestinian people.”
Gorbachev and Shamir exchanged a warm, smiling handshake for the media Tuesday, during what was the first-ever meeting between the two nations’ heads of government. It was one of the Israeli leader’s first dividends from the full resumption of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel.
But there were no handclasps between any Israelis and their Arab adversaries.
The sole exception was Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa, representing the only Arab country to have a peace treaty with Israel, who publicly shook hands with Shamir.
The very fact that the conference opened on schedule after months of doubt that it would ever materialize was the crowning achievement of the relentless U.S. diplomacy conducted by Secretary of State James Baker over the last eight months.
U.S. SEEKING A ‘REAL PEACE’
President Bush explained clearly that U.S. diplomatic pressure was not applied simply to end the state of belligerency in the Middle East.
Like Gorbachev, he stressed, “We seek peace, real peace. And by real peace, I mean treaties, security, diplomatic relations, economic relations, trade, investment, cultural exchanges, even tourism.”
After making a startling comparison with the situation between France and Germany in 1945, right after World War II, Bush said the 1978 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is “striking proof” that former adversaries can make and sustain peace.
He observed that even bitter foes like Israel and Syria respect the disengagement agreements they signed over the Golan Heights.
Bush said he did not expect peace to be “negotiated in a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year.
“What we envision is a process of direct negotiations proceeding along two tracks, one between Israel and the Arab states; the other between Israel and the Palestinians,” Bush said.
“The real work will not happen here in the plenary session, but in direct bilateral negotiations,” he said.
“This conference cannot impose a settlement on the participants or veto agreements,” he said. “And just as important, the conference can only be reconvened with the consent of every participant,” the president noted, affirming a condition demanded by Israel.
“Progress is in the hands of the parties who must live with the consequences,” Bush stressed.
He referred directly to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, for which he set a timetable.
AGREEMENT WITHIN ONE YEAR
“A framework already exists for diplomacy,” he said. “Negotiations will be conducted in phases, beginning with talks on interim self-government arrangements.
“We aim to reach agreement within one year,” the president said. “And once agreed, interim self-government arrangements will last for five years.”
“Beginning the third year, negotiations will commence on permanent status,” he said, reiterating what was essentially the 1978 Camp David formula.
According to Bush, “now is the ideal moment for the Arab world to demonstrate that attitudes have changed, that the Arab world is willing to live in peace with Israel and make allowances for Israel’s reasonable security needs.
“Israel now has an opportunity to demonstrate that it is willing to enter into a new relationship with its Palestinian neighbors,” the president added.
Shamir was to address the peace conference Thursday morning. After the speeches Wednesday, he apparently had what was described as a “discreet” private meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Moussa.
Moussa, an observer rather than negotiator, inasmuch as Israel and Egypt are at peace, was the only diplomat to publicly raise the issue of Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Referring to its “special status” as a holy city to three faiths, Moussa said, “The occupying power should not exercise monopoly, illegal sovereignty. The persistence of unilateral decisions to annex the Holy City lacks any validity or legitimacy,” he said.
JEWISH GROUPS HAIL BUSH SPEECH
In New York, meanwhile, two umbrella groups representing the vast majority of mainstream American Jewish organizations issued statements praising Bush’s speech to the peace conference.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, representing 50 national groups, hailed Bush’s address as “balanced and fair.”
“The president’s rejection of an imposed solution should do much to disabuse those Arab states that had hoped American pressure on Israel would preclude the need for them to engage in direct negotiations and compromise,” the conference said.
A statement issued by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council said that “American Jews — indeed all Americans — should be pleased with the tone and direction set today” by Bush.
The group, which represents 11 national Jewish organizations and over 100 community relations councils, applauded the president’s position that progress toward peace can only take place through direct negotiations and by taking into account Israel’s security concerns.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.