Musing about Bush in the Muqata'a

Was George W. Bush, the U.S. president who visited the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in his office in the Muqata’a presidential compound in Ramallah, mainly curious to see the place where he had kept Yasser Arafat on life support for years before his final illness, pinned down by marauding Israeli troops and bulldozers, whose leaders were constantly voicing their thoughts that Arafat should be assassinated?

It must have been a vicarious thrill of sorts for Bush to be there. He nearly walked on Arafat’s grave, which is within the compound, very near the helicopter launching pad that Bush took off from at the end of his visit — which included lunch in the Muqata’a.

Haaretz reported yesterday that, for the press conference sandwiched in between the meeting and the lunch, “a large panel placed behind Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President George W. Bush and covered by plastic sheeting painted to resemble a stone wall. Reporters figured it was intended to act as a shock absorber in the event of an explosion. Near the podium was another U.S. import, bulletproof metal panels covered with black cloth that could provide protection for the president”. This report was published in Haaretz here.

Did the Americans leave these protective devices behind — to protect Abbas and others, and to protect Bush the next time he comes, which may be for the 60th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence in May.

Now, we are being prepared for big American criticism — at least from Rice

We are being prepared for big American criticism of Israel in the coming period.

A week ago, Haaretz reported that “The United States will conduct confidential assessments of whether Israel and the Palestinians are meeting their peacemaking commitments and share the results privately with the parties, U.S. and Western officials said. Israel has sought to keep the U.S. process of judging compliance with the long-stalled “road map” peace plan largely secret. Palestinians say they favour disclosure of judgments on whether Israel is halting all settlement activity and whether the Palestinians are curbing militants as the plan demands”. This Haaretz story added that a senior U.S. official said ” ‘We will conduct this process in confidence … our purpose will be to encourage progress, not to chastise’ the parties. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington will share the assessment results ‘with the parties, probably bilaterally, but perhaps in other formats as well. We reserve the option to be public if need arises’, the official added … A senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel may come into conflict with the United States over increased pressure by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to advance talks with the Palestinian Authority … ‘Their demands from Israel will only increase and it is not certain that we can meet them under the circumstances’, he added. The adviser said that in Vice Premier Haim Ramon’s talks with American officials, he had gone ‘too far in promising them things to please them’. Another senior government official involved in the talks also warned of expected crises with the Palestinians and the Americans. ‘Israel has created a series of far-reaching expectations in the international arena’, this official said, referring to the implementation of the first part of the road map, ‘but this is not going to happen’. ‘There is no political capability either to evacuate settlements or freeze construction in the settlements’, the second official added. According to this official, the problem will be even greater when negotiations begin on the core issues. ‘There are detailed files that include Israel’s position on the day negotiations came to a halt in 2001’, he said. ‘What will happen when they open the Jerusalem file, for example? They’ll find that Israel’s final position at Taba is light-years away from Israel’s opening position today’. ” This Haaretz report was published here.

Now, Haaretz is warning that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is losing patience with Israel: “The latest point of friction had to do with the conference of donor countries to the Palestinians that took place in Paris last week. Rice wanted to proceed from the conference to Jerusalem, to make sure that the political process hadn’t withered and died after the fanfare in Annapolis. There was a decision already. What made her change her mind and not come? One version has it that she received a message from the White House not to rush things, to give the Israelis and Palestinians some time to work things out without her. Olmert’s bureau denies that Israel intervened to block Rice’s visit. David Welch, her aide on Middle East affairs, who had visited Israel a few days before that, felt that in any event, she wouldn’t be able to achieve much with a lightning visit so soon after Annapolis. The Americans say they don’t want Rice’s visits to become just a worthless routine. It was clear that this time, nothing much could come of it. In private conversations – and as she said in Annapolis – Rice tends to compare the Israeli occupation in the territories to the racial segregation that used to be the norm in the American South. The Israel Defense Forces checkpoints where Palestinians are detained remind her of the buses she rode as a child in Alabama, which had separate seats for blacks and whites. This is an uncomfortable comparison, of course, for the Israelis, who view it as ‘over-identification’ on her part with Palestinian suffering. For some leaders of American Jewish organizations, who weren’t all that fond of Rice to begin with, her use of this image was the last straw. Rice is now marked as an enemy. It’s also easier for them to blame her, rather than the president, for an approach that’s not to their liking. But Rice’s anger at Israel really derives from more current events: She was deeply offended at the height of the Second Lebanon War, while preparing to leave for Beirut to pull together a cease-fire, when the IDF killed Lebanese civilians during the bombing of Kafr Kana. Her trip was canceled at the last minute, the war went on for more than another two weeks, and some who know her say that Rice never forgave Israel for this slap in the face. In recent months, she’s been heard grumbling about Israel’s foot-dragging in carrying out good-will gestures toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The tension became more open in connection with the Annapolis summit, say Israeli sources. Rice changed the title of the event from “an international meeting” to a “summit,” [what??? the last format was “an international meeting”] despite Israel’s express objections. She supported the Palestinian position, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in tandem with the implementation of the road map. Israel balked, and managed to win consent for ‘sequential’ implementation – that is, first a war on terror and then a Palestinian state. When the leaders met with President George W. Bush prior to the official start of the summit, Olmert said that if he had any disagreements with Rice, he would turn to the president. “You’ll get the same answer from him,” Rice said. Olmert insisted on his right to appeal to the White House. Bush listened and didn’t say anything, but officials in Washington advise that one shouldn’t attach too much importance to this silence. Bush likes Olmert, but he likes Rice a lot more. Something very serious would have to happen for the president to override her authority. And she’s smart enough not to clash with Israel without first checking with the president just how far she can go. Israel needs an unofficial channel of communication, a “Rice bypass road,” to the White House. Steve Hadley, the national security advisor, who was Rice’s deputy during Bush’s first term, is very close to her and wouldn’t operate behind her back. And there is no Jewish leader in the Republican Party who, like Max Fisher in the past, has sufficient enough influence to just phone up the president and quietly take care of things. Most Jewish Republicans who have a degree of access to the White House are not fans of the political process, and some are busy promoting the campaign against a division of Jerusalem, an effort that Olmert perceives as a personal campaign against him and in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu. Which basically leaves Olmert as the guy who can communicate with Bush. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is maintaining her own channel of communication with her American counterpart, even if it appears that their initial mutual infatuation has faded. At the Prime Minister’s Office, the focus is now on Bush’s January 9th visit. Expected to top the agenda is the Iranian threat and the ramifications of the American intelligence report that said Iran is not planning to develop a military nuclear capability. On the Palestinian issue, those in Olmert’s circle believe that Bush will make do with some nice words and not bug his hosts with demands to evacuate outposts and remove checkpoints. Rice will have to deal with these troubles after Bush goes back home. And she apparently has every intention of doing so …Rice’s exasperation with Israel’s behavior stems primarily from the gap between expectations and results, and from the fast-dwindling time she has left on the seventh floor of the U.S. State Department. Rice thinks that Israel received a lot and didn’t give anything in return. As she sees it, the Bush administration gave Israel two important gifts in the president’s April, 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon: implied recognition of the settlement blocs, and a demand that the refugees return to the Palestinian state and not to Israel. But Israel isn’t responding with the proper counter-gestures. Here, however, they say that Rice received plenty and that she ought to be more patient. After all, within a month, Israel went to the major political event in Annapolis, and then the donor countries agreed to give the PA even more than she asked for. That’s not bad for such a short time. What’s her big rush? The problem is that Rice embarked on this campaign in the belief that she would succeed in cutting the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She hoped that in Annapolis principles would be set down for a final-status accord, but Israel told her that wasn’t going to happen. She thinks that the PA is making satisfactory progress with the reform of its security forces, while officials in Israel say she’s exaggerating and that the reform is still very far from accomplishing anything. She wanted to Israel to make more good-will gestures, but the Israelis remind here that this will be hard to do as long as Qassam rockets continue to fall on Sderot. She wanted to see outposts evacuated, and in Israel they blew her off, citing the danger it would pose to the coalition. Whether Israel likes it or not, it has been cast in the role of the obstacle, as the one putting the brakes on – while Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad are seen as the ones who want to make progress … And still, Rice’s people ask: Not even one outpost? One little pre-fab? Rice is right in saying that Israel is not making good on its commitment on this matter, but in Israel they say that fulfilling the obligation would sabotage more important moves. Will the coalition’s stability endure when the government tries to evacuate outposts, or to make serious progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians? Rice wants to believe that the answer is yes, but no one in Israel is willing to bet on it. The word in Olmert’s bureau is that the coalition relies on the distinction between ‘theory and deed’. As long as we’re only talking with the Palestinians, everyone can sit comfortably in their cabinet seats. But a forceful evacuation of settlers, or far-reaching understandings with Abbas, could upset the partnership with Lieberman and Shas. Olmert is well aware of this, and prefers to maintain the coalition and the government over making any serious moves in the territorie
s. For Rice to understand this too, however, she’ll have to be convinced each time anew”. This article was published in Haaretz here.

This is a very strange argument — why is Rice supposed to understand that pressures from opposition political parties in Israel will prevent the Prime Minister from honestly suing for peace with Palestinians?

Rice would be right if she sees the pursuit of honest negotiations as more important than maintaining the present political configuration in Israel — though the boogeyman threat being held out is that if Olmert goes, whoever comes in, and whatever new coalition will be formed, will be worse.

But this, of course, leads to a damned-if-you-do, and damned-if-you-don’t scenario … and in either version the Israeli politicians say they face constraints on sincere efforts to conclude a peace.

Bush speaks about the Occupation

U.S. President George Bush spoke about ending the occupation — meaning the Israeli occupation — of lands seized in the 1967 war. Bush said that this occupation should be ended through negotiation….through “a negotiated settlement”.

Here’s what Joshua Landis wrote about this in his blog, Syria Comment: ” ‘Negotiated Settlement’ rejects international law and the 1967 borders and accepts the concept of a solution based on the balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians, which is very lopsided in Israel’s favor. It means Palestinians will have to accept further land loss. Many were hoping that Bush would backtrack on his previous promise to Israel that it would not have to return to 1967 borders and could keep settled parts of the West Bank [n.b. Landis is referring here to the 14 April 2004 letter from Bush to Ariel Sharon]. Bush did not backtrack. Instead he seemed to confirm his previous promise by not mentioning 242. Here is the key paragraph [of Bush’s statement]: The Israelis must do their part. They must show the world that they are ready to begin — bring an end to the occupation that began in 1967 through a negotiated settlement. This settlement will establish Palestine as a Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. Israel must demonstrate its support for the creation of a prosperous and successful Palestinian state by removing unauthorized outposts, ending settlement expansion and finding other ways for the Palestinian Authority to exercise its responsibilities without compromising Israel’s security’.

Landis also wrote, in his blog post, that “Bush’s words will probably be the most important aspect of the conference. We all want to hear him take ‘possession’ of the peace process. He did not do this on Monday. Instead, he repeated the standard pablum of the last 7 years. Bush’s speech cannot be read as promising for Syria. Syria was not mentioned. The stress was on Democracy – Democracy as a precondition for any concessions to Palestinians. The only concrete offer of help Palestinians was Washington’s offer to support democratic ‘capacity building’. Bush avoided any mention of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which is the basis of international law and has been the starting place of all previous peace efforts…” Joshua Landis’ comments are posted here.

Ian Williams wrote recently, in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian, that “three years ago George Bush abrogated international law and almost 40 years of American foreign policy by declaring that because of ‘new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it [was] unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949′. In other words, if a thief hangs on to the property long enough, he gains title. It is an interesting, but not persuasive, gloss on international law …”
Ian William’s comment on the Bush letter dated 14 April 2004 to Ariel Sharon is here.

A “Joint Letter to Negotiating Parties” by Al Haq and other Palestinian civil society 0rganisations, dated 26 November 2007, and published on UmKhalil’s blog today, states that “Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention … establishes: ‘Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory. This provision seeks to address the obvious imbalance of power between the occupied and the occupier in any negotiation process. It recognises that an Occupying Power can, by virtue of its occupation, seek to legally validate through ‘negotiation’ the unilateral imposition of facts on the ground that violate international humanitarian law and harm the civilian population … “.

The Al Haq letter to the negotiating parties at the Annapolis conference is posted on UmKhalil’s blog here.

It was the first time that George Bush used the word “occupation” to describe the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It was the first time in a very long time that any ranking American official spoke about the “occupation”.

The Independent: Bush is a problem

The British newspaper The Independent speculates that the Annapolis conference may be a “Mission Impossible”, largely due to a number of deficits it attributes to U.S. President George W. Bush:

“Mr Bush needs to throw his weight behind the new peace efforts; not just through the intermediary of Ms Rice, however close to him she is, but personally – and constantly. Follow-through has never been his strength, be it in the absence of planning for post-invasion Iraq, or in the failure to make sure the proper aid was reaching New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Second, many doubt he will put enough pressure on the Israelis to make the painful concessions needed for a settlement to be credible in the eyes of the Palestinians. Mr Bush may be the most instinctively pro-Israeli President ever (though he has yet to visit Israel in his near-seven years in office). Those inclinations have only been reinforced by the ‘war on terror’. Soon after the September 11 attacks, Mr Sharon convinced him that Palestinian attacks on Israel were part and parcel of the global struggle with militant radical Islam. As a result, the onus hitherto has always been on the Palestinians to show progress on security, before anything was required of Israel. Making matters worse was Mr Bush’s lack of knowledge and sense of history. Flynt Everett, once the top adviser to Ms Rice on Middle East matters, but now a strong critic of the President, last week related how at a 2002 meeting in the White House situation room, he heard Mr Bush say that as soon as the Palestinians had a democratically elected government, their leadership would be ‘less hung-up’ on issues like borders and the status of Jerusalem. Mr Everett was astounded. It was, he told the Washington Post last week, ‘one of the most profoundly ignorant statements anyone has ever uttered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’.” The Independent’s pre-Annapolis assessment is here.