Bush and Palestinian-Israeli Peace Efforts
Charles D. Smith
Any doubts as to the president’s sincerity in committing himself to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process were increased, not dispelled, by his performance once he left Israel for Abu Dhabi. There he delivered a speech portrayed by his aides as the “centerpiece” of his Middle East trip. It focused on Iran as the threat to peace and attempted to reassert his commitment to democratic trends in the region. No mention was made of Israel or the Palestinians, a serious disconnect from the reality perceived by his hosts who consider the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli issue, not Iran, as a far greater threat to regional stability and their own security against popular unrest.
Were there any good signs from Bush’s visit to Israel and the West Bank? Upon arriving at Ben-Gurion airport he immediately lambasted Hamas for undermining the Gazan economy, spurring CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman to post a story on babies dying in Gaza hospitals because of the American-backed Israeli blockade of most goods in and out of the area; no similar story appeared in the mainstream media. But Bush’s Israeli hosts were concerned. Prime Minister Olmert’s airport welcome was so effusive that many winced. Olmert had himself given an interview a week before where he had said that many “painful decisions” would be necessary regarding withdrawal from West Bank settlements. The question remains whether the pain Olmert forsees for Israelis by confronting settlers will be sufficient to meet minimum Palestinian expectations regarding the borders of a viable Palestinian state.
To his credit, Bush did speak openly of the need for Israel to end its “occupation” of Arab land. Israelis bristled at the word “occupation.” He referred to a “viable, contiguous, and sovereign” state, indicating that the Israeli right of oversight of Palestinian movements would be curtailed. He also called for the end of settlement building and removal of unauthorized outposts. But much of this can be reinterpreted to mean something quite different than what one might expect.
What does the word “contiguous” signify? Ariel Sharon referred to “transportational contiguity” for Palestinians on the West Bank. He meant that Israeli settlements and bypass roads would remain, some such as Maale Adumim virtually cutting the West Bank in half. Palestinians could connect between the northern and southern areas by means of tunnels under the Israeli bypass roads, overseen by Israeli troops on the roads above. That’s not exactly what contiguity usually means. Olmert himself has referred to contiguity with the idea that Gaza and the West Bank must be connected to form one Palestinian state; no mention of West Bank contiguity that could only be assured by removal of Malae Adumim. Olmert is adamant that that settlement will remain part of Israel.
Indeed, Israel officials can rely on Bush’s April 2004 letter, written with the aid of Elliott Abrams of the NSC, assuring Sharon that the “facts on the ground,” major population areas in the West Bank, could remain part of Israel. But where some might think that referred only to the Etzion and similar blocs close to Jerusalem, Israeli officials appear to have other towns in mind, including Ariel, an town that thrusts well into the northern West Bank and around which the security barrier is being extended. Once Bush had left, Israeli officials said with assurance that major settlement expansion would continue.
In such circumstances, we should not expect that any Palestinian leader, however conciliatory he might wish to be, could accept such a process where the “painful concessions” amounted to very little from a Palestinian perspective. Olmert may fear his settler constituency and civil war if required to abandon many settlements, but Abbas’s position depends on achieving nearly the maximum possible with respect to Israeli-occupied land across the 1967 Green Line.
Interestingly, Secretary of State Condalezza Rice appears more determined to confront the issues than President Bush. She has been cited in the Israeli press as saying that Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank reminds her of her childhood as a black woman in the American south. Strong stuff. But if Olmert feels he can bypass her and rely on Abrams to get to Bush, he may not feel too threatened.
Under the circumstances, with Bush far more focused on Iran than the Palestinians, we should not expect too much for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Bush has strong emotional ties to Israel, fueled by his helicopter survey of the West Bank with Ariel Sharon in 1998. As the Washington Post reported, Bush viewed the ten-mile width of Israel within its 1967 borders and quipped that there were driveways in Texas longer than that. What the Post did not note was that Bush made that remark at the AIPAC convention in spring 2000 as he appealed for Jewish support in the election campaign.
As Olmert noted in his Jerusalem Post interview, Israel faced the quandary of either withdrawing from much of the West Bank, to ensure a Jewish state, or retaining hold and taking on governance of the Palestinian population, denying the possibility of a Jewish state. Recognizing the dilemma and doing something about it are two different things. It is more likely that Olmert may hope that Palestinian rejection of a supposedly generous offer -recall the fictional narrative of what happened at Camp David 2000- will enable him to evade confrontation with the settlers. But such evasion threatens rather than ensures Israel’s security in the long term. Mahmud Abbas, on his part, must demand almost full Israeli withdrawal or be forced out of office. In such circumstances, what Olmert views as necessary for his political survival, which includes escaping assassination by settlers, will likely be what Abbas cannot accept if he himself wishes to survive.
Serious discussions of these matters may await a new administration. If Democratic, it will likely include Dennis Ross overseeing the supposed peace process. That is not encouraging. Ross essentially falsified the information he gave the American public on the Oslo process and Camp David. He willingly acknowledged to a European audience in Charles Enderlin’s Shattered Dreams [now in English] that Israel was as responsible for the failure of the peace process as the Palestinians. He specifically mentioned Israeli settlement building from 1993 onward to 2000. In his memoir for Americans, The Missing Peace, he never mentions Israeli settlements after the year 1993, thus evading the 1993-2000 period he mentions in Enderlin.
Such an example of bias does not inspire confidence for what might happen beyond the end of this year. We may have to hope for more boldness from Israelis and Palestinians than concrete initiatives from Washington, especially in a presidential election year.