President George W. Bush’s eight-day trip through the Middle East lived up to its billing as a momentum-building exercise. The stated goal was “advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” as National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley put it January 9 en route to Israel. The trip’s other main aim, drumming up opposition to what Washington views as Iranian adventurism, wound up taking much more time than Bush spent in the Holy Land. As Hadley noted, “It’s still a little early in the process” to expect signing ceremonies.
“The process,” of course, refers to the talks launched by the Annapolis Conference last November and to the Joint Understanding signed by the Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Much has been said about the likelihood of an agreement by the end of Bush’s term in January 2009, a goal he restated during the trip. But less attention has been paid to the details of what is on the table. The Annapolis “understanding” requires the Palestinians and Israelis to implement “Phase 1” of Bush’s “Roadmap for Peace,” the 2003 initiative that unraveled after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006. Phase One requires Palestinians to “undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups” from attacking Israel. Israel, for its part, must freeze all settlements and “immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001.”
Bush’s visit brought new pledges from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on both counts. But Abbas, who no longer holds sway over Hamas-controlled Gaza, cannot stop Qassam rocket attacks on Israel that threatened further talks (al-Jazeera) even before Bush arrived back in Washington. Olmert, sounding more like an opposition leader than a government head, chided his own coalition (AP) for not abiding by past Israeli pledges to dismantle illegal “outposts” in the West Bank.
Still, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met privately January 15 on these preliminary hurdles, as well as the deeper questions (VOA) of Jerusalem’s final status, the rights of displaced Palestinians, and the future of the West Bank.
Furthermore, Bush’s visit brought some clarity to important U.S. positions. For instance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Jerusalem Post that Washington expects Israel to halt construction of new housing in disputed East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. “The roadmap obligations are on settlement activity generally,” she stated at a later news conference. Even more striking to Israeli and Arab ears was Bush’s assertion that any Palestinian state had to be contiguous, and his use of the term “occupation,” which has been avoided by U.S. diplomats in the past. “There's no such thing as a state if it's going to be occupied,” he told reporters in Saudi Arabia on January 15. “When I said contiguous, that means contiguous territory.” The statement drew praise from the Financial Times editorial page, as well as a rebuke from the Zionist Organization of America.
Early as it may be in the Annapolis process, commentary in the region focused on what little remains of the Bush presidency to see things through to a comprehensive settlement. Arabs, writes Dar Al Hayat’s Jamil Theyabi, won’t be satisfied with new adjectives, “they want real and 'tangible' change” on the ground. Israelis, too, are pessimistic. “Had he bothered to embark on this introductory journey at the beginning of his term in office, perhaps his hosts would explain to him that haste is from the devil,” writes a columnist for Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth. Bucking the trend, Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin looks at the shape a final-status agreement might take. But even he notes nothing much can be solved with Hamas holding sway in Gaza.