On a trip intended to bolster support for a quick Israeli-Palestinian agreement, President George W. Bush this week reaffirmed that Israel cannot be expected to give up all settlement blocks – and that a Palestinian state must be "viable and contiguous."
Bush, who visited Yad Vashem and passed through an Israeli checkpoint en route to Ramallah, was "very balanced; he didn’t come off as an advocate for either side," said Amb. Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv..
While some pro-peace process groups are skeptical any real progress can be made while Gaza remains under Hamas control, groups opposed
to any compromise on the explosive issue of Jerusalem are worried that the President signaled the issue will soon be on the negotiating table.
"There’s no new policy here, but his comments have been particularly blunt," said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. "What’s not clear is if this is just a matter of style; this administration has talked tough about a lot of things but not followed through."
In a statement in Jerusalem on Thursday, Bush stressed that "progress needs to be made on four parallel tracks" in the renewed peace process; Israel and the Palestinians, he said, "need to fulfill their commitments under the road map."
Bush said he supports continuing summits between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and then spoke in unusually blunt terms: "There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967…achieving an agreement will require painful political concessions by both sides."
The President reaffirmed his 2004 letter acknowledging that there would have to be compromises on the issue of Israeli settlement blocks in any Israeli-Palestinian deal: "I believe that any peace agreement…will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous."
That last part is critical to Palestinian leaders, who worry that Israel’s security fence is meant to outline a Palestinian state that would be cut up into small enclaves.
"Swiss cheese isn’t going to work when it comes to the outlines of a state," Bush said in Ramallah.
"He has been warned by his people that the kinds of plans (former Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon had would have cut the Palestinian state up into many pieces," said Amb. Edward Walker, "with all points of contact controlled by Israel. This week he was sending a message that this is not acceptable to his administration."
And Bush said "neither party should undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudices the final status negotiations. On the Israeli side that includes ending settlement expansion and removing unauthorized outposts. On the Palestinian side that includes confronting terrorists and dismantling terrorist infrastructure."
He touched on the issue of Palestinian refugees, one of the deal breakers of past peace efforts, echoing proposals by former President Bill Clinton in 2000 with a call for "compensation."
"He made it clear we need a new mechanism on refugees," said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). "He was basically telling the Palestinians to get rid of the ‘right of return.’"
Bush also mentioned Jerusalem, increasingly the flash point for opposition by some American Jewish groups, although he was careful not to offer any specific suggestions about how it might be handled in any peace agreement.
"I know Jerusalem is a tough issue," he said. "Both sides have deeply felt political and religious concerns. I fully understand that finding a solution to this issue will be one of the most difficult challenges on the road to peace, but that is the road we have chosen to walk."
That prompted a sharp rebuke from the Orthodox Union, an active member of a coalition opposing any "redivision" of Jerusalem.
"From our perspective, the fate of Jerusalem is not a ‘tough issue,’ the group’s leaders said in a statement. "Jerusalem was established as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people more than three thousand years ago. It has never served as the capital of any other nation. Jerusalem is the city toward and for which Jews have prayed throughout the millennia."
OU leaders rejected any "equivalence between ‘both sides’ when it comes to Jerusalem. The weight of history and destiny tell us that Jerusalem must remain the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel and the Jewish people."
The White House also announced it was sending Lt. Gen. William M. Fraser III to referee disputes between Israel and the Palestinians over implementation of earlier agreements, and indicated the President will return to the region in May, when Israel celebrates its 60th birthday.
"The real message of this trip is that President Bush is personally involved for the first time," said Amb. Edward Walker. "This will have an impact, but it will be proven or not proven depending on what happens on the ground."