As he visits Israel this week for the second time in four months, President George W. Bush has scaled down his expectations for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Instead of the optimism he displayed late last year when he spoke of the creation of a Palestinian state before he left office, Bush told Israeli journalists Monday that he was hoping the two sides could “get a state defined by the end of my presidency.”
Asked if he meant that Israel and the Palestinians would agree to the borders of a Palestinian state, Bush replied: “Well, that and the refugee issue, as well as other key security issues that are necessary for the state to come into being.”
There was no mention about the future of Jerusalem.
“He is more realistic than the State Department,” said Efraim Inbar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University.
Asked about the raised expectations surrounding the Annapolis summit meeting last November, Inbar said “the euphoria was always Condi’s game.”
He was referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who Tuesday was quoted as saying that although reaching a Middle East peace agreement within the next eight months “might be improbable but it’s not impossible.”
“Now with [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert in trouble [with a new criminal probe], he may try even more [to reach a deal],” Inbar said. “But the issues don’t lend themselves to an agreement; the two societies are too far apart. I think the problem is primarily with the Palestinians. … Olmert wants a deal to try to save his tenure as premier.”
Inbar said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has “lost Gaza” to Hamas and “is not able even to control his own town of Ramallah. There is no willingness to confront the militias. In order to deliver, he has to have a monopoly over the use of force in his own territory.”
As Olmert and Bush were wrapping up talks on Wednesday a Katyusha rocket fired from Gaza slammed into the third floor of an Ashkelon shopping center, injuring at least 10, including several children. The rocket had a longer range than those usually fired from Gaza, which is about 9 miles from Ashkelon.
Inbar said Bush’s visit is largely one of solidarity to help Israel celebrate its 60th birthday.
“It is very nice of him,” Inbar said. “It’s a big honor to Israel. After all, he is the president of the United States, and he is coming specially with his wife. It is a real sign of friendship and we appreciate it.”
In his airport greeting Wednesday, Bush pointed out that “our two nations both faced great challenges when they were founded. And our two nations have both relied on the same principles to help us succeed. We built strong democracies to protect the freedoms given to us by an almighty God. We consider the Holy Land a very special place and we consider the Israeli people our close friends. Shalom.”
Just one day before Bush’s arrival, Olmert declared that “important understandings” have been reached in Palestinian negotiations. But observers said more critical efforts appeared to focus on an agreement to end fighting with Hamas in Gaza. Rockets and mortars fired by terrorists from Gaza this week killed two Israeli civilians in separate attacks.
“The discussion with Hamas is the main issue,” said Yitzchak Reiter of the Hebrew Univesity of Jerusalem. “If Israel is not able to contain or alternatively to come to terms with Hamas through talks with Egypt, a large scale military operation [into Gaza] to control the shooting of rockets” is the only alternative.
The proposed agreement by Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza would be for six months. Israel has insisted that the agreement include a provision that Hamas not use the time to rearm by smuggling in weapons and that it also agree to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, whom it helped abduct in a cross border raid on June 25, 2006.
“Hamas would like to have a truce in Gaza and the West Bank so it can renew its power [rearm] and it wants to hold Shalit forever,” said Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Arabs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “If it did not have him, it might try to kidnap another soldier.”
Kedar said he does not believe Israel would agree to any deal without the release of Shalit – a condition Hamas has rejected—and that he does not trust Hamas to stop smuggling in weapons even if it agreed to.
Reuven Ehrlich, director of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies near Tel Aviv, stressed that what Hamas and the other terrorist groups are seeking is not really a cease-fire but rather a “lull in the fighting.”
“What Israel will agree to, I don’t know,” Ehrlich said. “There are reasons why it would say yes, and there are a lot of reasons why it would say no. … From Hamas’ perspective, it is talking about ceasing rocket fire but not stopping rearming.”
He noted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to declare his strong support for an agreement.
“An important component of the initiative is the opening of the [Israeli and Egyptian] crossings with the Gaza Strip,” Ehrlich pointed out. “And it would be open on their terms – giving them freedom to smuggle in all of their arms. … It has put the Israeli leadership in a dilemma.”
Talks between Abbas and Olmert continued this week and Uri Savir, director of the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, said “there has been progress. The understanding is more conceptual rather than concrete and in writing.”
He said he believed it was possible for the two sides to decide the issue of borders by the end of the year.
Asked if Olmert had the political clout to negotiate an agreement with Abbas as well as to mount a military offensive in Gaza if one was necessary, Savir replied: “If he does not resign, he will have the clout for both.”
Eytan Gilboa, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said that although there may have been progress on the border issue, “refugees, Jerusalem and settlements are very, very difficult” to resolve.
He noted that Bush has told Israeli journalists this week that he would be judged differently in 20 years because he has “laid down foundations for a better Middle East. … He started with calling for a two-state solution in 2002 – a democratic Palestine living in peace and security alongside Israel as a Jewish state. He was the first president to support a Palestinian state and to suggest that a return to the 1967 borders was impossible because of all kinds of facts established in the area. He made important statements during his years.
“I just completed a study in which I argue that Israel is the strongest supporter of the United States and the United States is the strongest supporter of Israel, and that it considers Israel a highly reliable and trusted ally.”