Jewish World Review May 19, 2008 / 14 Iyar 5768
Israel's best friend expresses hope for outline of Palestinian state by the end of his term
By Mark Silva
Commitment comes as violence against Jewish state escalates
The obstacles to such an agreement are legion, ranging from persistent violence to the precariousness of the political power of Israeli and Palestinian leaders negotiating an accord.
Yet the White House maintains that Bush gained confidence in a series of private talks with Mideast leaders during this journey Israeli, Palestinian, Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian that the outlines of a new state can be drawn by the end of his own presidency. Without elaborating on secretive talks, the administration cited "tangible progress on hard issues" during the past few days, leaving the door open to another Bush visit to Israel, the third this year, before he leaves office in January.
"A peace agreement is in the Palestinians' interests, it is in Israel's interest, it is in Arab states' interests, and it is in the world's interest," Bush said in an address to a World Economic Forum on the Middle East. "And I firmly believe that with leadership and courage, we can reach that peace agreement this year."
The actual creation of any independent Palestinian state, the White House concedes, will take much longer and depends on further agreement between Israelis and Palestinians on disputes such as the fate of refugees, the containment of violence and retrenchment of Israeli settlements.
"Is it done yet? No," said Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, after a series of private, individual meetings between Bush and leaders of several nations in Israel, Saudi Arabia and here in Sharm el-Sheik. "Are we making progress? The president's view is, yes, we're making progress."
Skeptical analysts said they have seen no new cause for optimism, with the Israeli and Palestinian heads of state facing political problems of their own.
"If you get an agreement from these leaders, how do these leaders begin to implement it? You have two incredibly weak leaders and a weak American president," Jon Alterman, director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Sunday. "How do you bring the skeptics on board? I don't see a plan for that. And the skeptics in this conflict have a lot of guns."
Bush spoke of the transition from tyranny to democracy that many nations in Europe made in the 20th century and said that Iraq and Afghanistan are successfully undergoing that transition today.
"I strongly believe that if leaders like those of you in this room act with vision and resolve, the first half of 21st century can be the time when similar advances reach the Middle East," Bush said.
Praising his Egyptian hosts in this seaside resort known as "the city of peace" for progress that Egypt has made, Bush also publicly pressed Cairo and other nations to pursue further reforms.
"America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed, newspapers and civil society organizations that are shut down, and dissidents whose voices are stifled," Bush said. "Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail.
"Isolation from the outside world is being overcome by the most democratic of inventions: the cell phone and the Internet," Bush added.
"The changes I have discussed today will not come easily. Change never does," Bush said. "But the reform movement in the Middle East has a powerful engine: demographics. Sixty percent of the population is under 30 years old. Many of these young people surf the Web, own cell phones and satellite televisions, and have access to unprecedented amounts of information."
The president reiterated a promise he made in November, at a summit of Israeli and Arab leaders in Annapolis, Md.: "A peace agreement that will ... outline what this nation of Palestine will look like - a contiguous state where Palestinians live in prosperity and dignity."
Bush couched fulfillment of that vision as a long-term "vision." He repeated a prediction he made in Israel last week, during a celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary.
"Just imagine what this region could look like in 60 years," Bush said of a "two-state solution" that he has been promoting since he called for creation of a Palestinian state during his second year in office. "The Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved. ... Israel will be celebrating its 120th anniversary as one of the world's great democracies."
Alterman suggested that this long-range view offers little solace for the region at the moment: "It reminds me of John Maynard Keynes saying, in the long run we'll all be dead. ... There is not a single person on the ground who wants to hear that there will be peace in 60 years, because people are dying today."
Despite the appearance of lack of any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks that started after Annapolis, the White House said "significant progress" has been made.
"You have all been writing that there's a sense of pessimism in the region and low expectations," Hadley told reporters near the close of Bush's trip, suggesting the mission itself was aimed at offering hope.
The contiguous Palestinian state that Bush is promoting will take years to establish, Hadley said.
"The president never said it would be implemented ... during his term. Quite the contrary," said Hadley, insisting that what's possible this year is "an agreement for a Palestinian state that is the core of a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that would ultimately end the conflict."
Among the many barriers: The takeover of Gaza by Hamas which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas, considered by both the U.S. and Israel as a terrorist organization, is not a party to the negotiations that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been leading since Annapolis.
"We hope ... to have a vision for a Palestinian state, that President Abbas can then go to the people in the West Bank and to the people in Gaza and give them a choice: Do you want to continue life under Hamas or do you want to come and join the prospect for a peaceful Palestinian state?"
Critics have maintained that Bush has not made a personal commitment to the "two-state solution" that he articulated early his presidency. Bush made his first trip to Israel as president only in January. But the White House holds out the possibility that he could return a third time to push again.
Hadley said: "The president will come back here when there is work for him to do to advance the process."
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