One historic concession deserves another. Just four months after Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — the father of the settlement movement — stunned Israelis by pledging to evacuate some settlements, he got his payback from President Bush, who reversed decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Israel’s claim to parts of the West Bank.
It was compensation, with interest: Sharon had scored perhaps the most stunning diplomatic triumph in the U.S.-Israeli alliance in a generation.
“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949,” Bush said Wednesday at a White House appearance with Sharon after the two leaders met.
“It is realistic to expect that any final-status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
The statement, reiterated in a letter to Sharon, represents the first time the U.S. government has provided a formal commitment to Israel’s claim on parts of the West Bank.
The Palestinians had agreed to Israel’s claim to some settlements in exchange for land swaps in non-binding negotiations in 2000-2001 shepherded by then- President Clinton.
But Bush’s commitment came without any mention of land from Israel and was widely seen as a significant shift in U.S. policy in the region.
According to a senior Israeli official, land swaps weren’t even discussed this time around.
It was a soaring historical moment fraught with grinding political realities.
Bush needs a Middle East success to bolster a reputation as a bold foreign policy leader that flags with each U.S. casualty in Iraq.
“Iraq points to the need of the administration for some achievement,” said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The administration will want to showcase the Gaza pullout as an example of its success in the region.”
For his part, Sharon needs to show Israelis that his leadership through some of the nation’s most traumatic years is resulting in a diplomatic breakthrough.
In addition, he faces a May 2 Likud Party referendum on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, and other Likud figures have vowed to challenge any uprooting of settlements.
In a mutual admiration session extraordinary even by election-year standards, each man essentially recommended the other to his electorate.
“In all these years, I have never met a leader as committed as you are, Mr. President, to the struggle for freedom and the need to confront terrorism wherever it exists,” Sharon said, gazing into Bush’s eyes.
Bush was even clearer in his endorsement.
“He’s a bold leader. That’s what people want. They want leadership,” Bush said of Sharon in remarks addressed to Israeli cameras.
And in case the Likud slogan factory missed the message, he added: “I’m confident the Israeli people appreciate that kind of leadership.”
It was Sharon, however, who clearly had the upper hand.
When talks on the dimensions of a withdrawal began in February, the Americans rejected out of hand any recognition of Israeli claims in the West Bank. Subsequently, U.S. officials said they would consider such a recognition depending on the breadth of the withdrawal.
According to a senior Israeli official, the disengagement plan Sharon presented to Bush calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all of the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank.
The settlements, encompassing 500 settlers, include Ganim, Homesh, Kadim and Sanur, all in the northern West Bank. The withdrawal from these settlements would provide contiguity for the Palestinians between Jenin and Nablus, a major Palestinian concern.
The official said any future withdrawal would depend on how the Palestinians respond to this proposal and whether they live up to their commitments.
The official also indicated that Sharon had been prepared to offer a larger West Bank withdrawal, but didn’t have to present that option because the U.S. administration accepted the more limited offering.
In a sign of how confident Sharon was of his triumph, just before he left for Washington he upped the number of settlement blocs Israel would claim from three to five, throwing in the combustible Hebron bloc.
The other four settlement blocs Sharon has said Israel will permanently claim are Ma’aleh Adumim, Givat Ze’ev and Gush Etzion, all bedroom communities to Jerusalem; and Ariel, in the central West Bank.
Furthermore, no one expected Bush to so explicitly bury years of U.S. policy, which traditionally said all the land Israel captured in 1967 was up for negotiation.
At best, Bush was expected to recognize vague “demographic realities.” Instead, he said it was “unrealistic” to expect Israel to return to its pre-1967 lines.
Bush moreover threw in an endorsement of Israel’s controversial security barrier as it is now routed.
Just last summer, Bush had been strongly skeptical of Israeli claims that the barrier was not permanent, but he now appeared to accept them at face value.
“The barrier being erected by Israel as a part of that security effort should, as your government has stated, be a security rather than political barrier,” he said.
Finally, Bush expressed his most emphatic rejection to date of the Palestinian demand that Arab refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to land in Israel that they left in 1948.
“It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final-status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there rather than Israel,” he said.
Sharon gave very little in return. Against Bush’s repeated assurances that the Gaza withdrawal would spur forward the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan and its goal of a Palestinian state, Sharon referred only obliquely to “your vision” in his public remarks Wednesday.
Prior to leaving Israel, Sharon suggested that his planned withdrawal could postpone Palestinian dreams of statehood.
In his letter to Bush, however, Sharon does refer to Palestinian statehood and the road map, and senior Israeli officials said the United States and Israel still share the goal of a Palestinian state at the end of the process.
Still, the biggest political loser Wednesday appeared to be the Palestinians, who were paying the price for a leadership that refused to stop terrorism and never successfully engaged Bush.
Palestinian leaders understood the historical dimensions of the day.
“He is the first president who has legitimized the settlements in the Palestinian territories when he said that there will be no return to the borders of 1967,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei was quoted as saying by Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper.
Qurei’s outlook was bleak.
“We as Palestinians reject that, we cannot accept that, we reject and refuse it,” he said.
Senior Bush administration officials, however, said the Palestinians should view the letters as an opportunity.
“What we want is a situation where Palestinian leaders, committed to democracy and fighting terror, have a chance to take control of that territory as a down payment on the way toward a Palestinian state,” one said. “And we propose to engage very vigorously with the Palestinian Authority to try and create the institutions that will allow them to do that.”