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Erlanger: Low Israeli Expectations for Bush Middle East Trip

Interviewee: Steven Erlanger, Chief Jerusalem Correspondent, New York Times
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 7, 2008

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Steven Erlanger, the New York Times’ chief correspondent in Jerusalem since 2004, says that despite Israeli fondness for their “great friend,” U.S. President George W. Bush, there is no expectation that his trip to the Middle East next week, or the Annapolis peace process, will bear much fruit. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas both know privately that concessions will have to be made to work out a peace agreement, Erlanger says, but “they are both too politically weak now to discuss honestly with their own populations the kinds of concessions that would be required to reach a peace.”

President Bush flies to the Middle East next week for a nine-day visit following up on the Annapolis Middle East peace conference last November. He starts in Israel, where he will spend three days shuttling between Israel and the West Bank, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials, and doing some sightseeing as well. What’s the mood in Israel and the Palestinian areas since the peace conference ended with a call for stepped up negotiations leading to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestinians?

In Israel, George Bush is considered a great friend, and most Israelis are happy when an American president comes. President Bill Clinton visited Israel four times as president, but this is Bush’s first, and the first by a president since Clinton came at the end of 1998. But nobody, especially on the Israeli side, expects much to come out of this visit—or, frankly, out of the Annapolis peace process. 

What is on the Israelis’ minds?

Israelis are very nervous about Iran. They were very unhappy with the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, at least the public version [which stated that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003].

The Israelis thought the report was badly framed and a very poor piece of work and they want to discuss Iran with Bush. They are afraid the whole NIE effort was an attempt by the intelligence bureaucracy to bind Bush’s hands so he doesn’t do anything about Iran before he leaves office. That’s a big issue. Israel is also very interested in talking to Bush about pushing Egypt to do more to stop the smuggling of money and weapons into Gaza. That gives you an idea of the Israeli mood. It’s a narrowly focused mood. It has more to do with worries about Hamas and Gaza—which were issues left out of Annapolis altogether—than about any great expectation that peace is around the corner with the Palestinians, or even that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or President Mahmoud Abbas will be able to negotiate an agreement which could be implemented.

Why is that? Is it because the Israelis themselves are not too interested in any of the concessions they would be obligated to make?

I like to think of it this way: You have two leaders who when they get into a room are pretty open with each other. I think [they] have a pretty good idea of where they would like to go, but neither has been willing to speak publicly about those things. They are both afraid to. They are both too politically weak now to discuss honestly with their own populations the kinds of concessions that would be required to reach a peace. Olmert has been a little more explicit—Israelis by now understand that there is going to be a division of the land and so on. But there is already battling going on about dividing Jerusalem, and what parts of the West Bank might go or stay under Israeli control. There is a belief that if he gets too specific, his government will fall apart. And of course, in a democracy, the prime objective is to stay in office, because you cannot do anything if you are not in power, even if your intentions are wonderful.

On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas is considered a man of great character and goodwill, but completely ineffective as a leader. People don’t believe he even controls Fatah—his own faction—let alone the Palestinian people. And while in general there is no doubt but that Palestinians want peace, there hasn’t begun to be a discussion among Palestinians about the fact that a peace treaty with Israel will mean no real right of return for Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel.

And what about the final borders issue?

When Palestinians talk about the 1967 borders, there is very little open discussion among Palestinians about the reality that the demarcation lines are not going to be exactly the 1967 borders. So there really is a long way to go. The Americans are thinking that maybe these two guys can come up with an agreement that can be put on the shelf and implemented over a period of years. But the Israelis are afraid that if it is done, peace will never happen, that another Palestinian leader who is likely to be less of a nice fellow than Mahmoud Abbas may say, “Well, that’s a good place to start.” So the Israelis get very nervous about that.

And the other American idea that came out of Annapolis is that they take the dormant road map of 2003 for peace that the Quartet [the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations]worked out—and both sides agreed to (the Israelis had reservations)—and they take the first stage of the roadmap, designed to create confidence on both sides, and implement that in parallel with negotiations on a final status agreement. Under the original road map, negotiations on final status were not supposed to come until the end of the process.

In the first stage of the road map, Palestinians were obligated to begin to dismantle terrorist infrastructure and all militant groups outside the Palestinian Security Forces. From the Israeli point of view, that includes Hamas and Gaza. But Hamas runs Gaza. There is no expectation that anyone is going to be disarming Hamas anytime soon unless the Israelis launch a major invasion of Gaza, which nobody seems ready to do. On the Israeli side, the first stage of the road map requires them to get rid of all illegal settlement outposts that were built ever since Ariel Sharon came into office in March 2001, and Israel has been unwilling to do that. The Israelis were also supposed to freeze all settlement activity and stop even “natural” growth in the settlements. The Israelis have said—and Olmert has been explicit—that we don’t give official funding to new settlements and we’re not going to build new settlements, and not going to expropriate more land for settlements. But on the other hand, the Israelis assert they are not going to stop construction and settlement activity inside the built up areas of existing settlements, especially the ones Israel intends to keep. The Palestinians say that’s not what the road map says. The Americans are supposed to set up some kind of monitoring system under Ret. General James Jones to adjudicate how the two sides are doing. That process hasn’t been set up yet. And it is not clear how public a process that will be.

I don’t mean to be depressing about this, but there has been an awful lot of rhetoric since Annapolis and considerable treading water, and not much substance.

Of course Bush has been criticized by Middle East experts as not really being very active in pushing for Middle East peace, and I guess this is his way of saying, “Here I am. I am pushing.”

That’s right and that’s important. Presidential visits create their own deadlines. Leaders have to say to their bureaucracies: “The guy is coming. What am I going to tell him?” Suddenly decisions get made and work takes place, so even the visit by itself will be an accelerant to the process of making decisions. But I think the criticism is genuine. Bush’s aides, like National Security Council Director Stephen Hadley, argue that this is the best time, and because President Bush has been so strong against terrorism and refused to deal with [former Palestinian President] Yasir Arafat he has helped create a situation where the Israelis and Palestinians are able to talk in a serious way.

But it is very late in the day. A president’s last term begins to run out of steam in the summer of his last year in office, and here we are in January and there is not a lot of time left. There is a feeling in the Israeli bureaucracy that they should push this whole issue down the road past the Bush administration. I think Olmert is sincere when he says he would like to try to negotiate an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas by the end of 2008, but when he says that he means negotiating a “shelf” agreement which would take a number of years to implement. People tend to forget how difficult these details are. There is so much to figure out about what a new Palestinian state would be like—even in terms of what military equipment it could have and what would happen to air rights, let alone issues of where to divide the land.

On the final settlement, have the Israelis come to any consensus on the status of Jerusalem?

I would say no. Olmert has floated the idea that when Jerusalem was expanded to include parts of the West Bank that increased the boundaries of Jerusalem, certain Palestinian neighborhoods that Israel does not want to keep were included in Greater Jerusalem. When Olmert talks about dividing Jerusalem, with part of it being the capital of a new Palestinian state, he’s talking about giving back Palestinian areas, some of which are already outside the separation barrier and which Israel has no desire to rule over. He is not talking about the Old City in East Jerusalem, which is a very important issue. He is being very vague of how much of East Jerusalem he will give up. When Palestinians talk about the 1967 borders, they are including the Old City.

The Old City now has a large Orthodox Jewish population?

Yes. Nearly two hundred thousand Jews have moved into what was East Jerusalem. And much of the world considers them “settlers” too.

What is Jerusalem’s total population?

710,000.

So that’s nearly a third of the population.

Yes, and around East Jerusalem, Israel has built settlements like Ma'ale Adumim, which has more than thirty thousand people. It has all kinds of malls, etc. It is not going to disappear. This is one of the settlement blocs. There is an Israeli consensus that includes all but the farthest left that such settlements shall remain in Israel.

At Annapolis, there were all those other Arab states with delegations. Why not try to negotiate a peace agreement first between Israel and Syria?

There has been talk about that. Olmert says he is open to it. It was very important that the Syrians came to Annapolis, even at the deputy foreign minister level. I know Olmert and Bush discussed it in Washington after the Annapolis meeting. The Americans are opposed because they do not think the Syrians are serious about coming into the more moderate Arab camp. Though, the Americans recognize that if they do that, it would be a big boon. The Syrians are saying they want to fix their relationship with the Americans first. That it is more important to them than the Israeli relationship. Israeli finds its hands a little bound by the Washington relationship. But certainly, if the Israelis and Syrians had a serious conversation, the Israelis and the Syrians could get it done pretty quickly. At the moment, Israeli officials say the Syrian channels have closed down again.

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