By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
President Bush launched a diplomatic effort yesterday to revive the long-moribund Middle East peace process, announcing aid to the Palestinian government and calling for an international conference this fall aimed at paving the way for the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
Five years after becoming the first president to fully embrace a "two-state solution," Bush acknowledged that it remains distant after violent clashes that have politically sundered the Palestinian territories. But Bush called this a "moment of choice" for the region and renewed his commitment heading into his final 18 months in office.
"Recent days have brought a chapter of upheaval and uncertainty in the Middle East," Bush said in a speech in the main foyer of the White House. "But the story does not have to end that way. . . . In the face of terror and cynicism and anger, we stand on the side of peace in the Holy Land."
Bush's conference, chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would bring together Israel, the Palestinian Authority and unspecified "neighbors in the region," but it could be less inclusive than the last major U.S.-sponsored Arab-Israeli conference, which was organized by President George H.W. Bush in Madrid in 1991. Unlike his father, the president invited only those that "recognize Israel's right to exist," seemingly excluding potent actors in the region such as Iran and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group.
The idea has come together only in recent days, and administration officials were scrambling to figure out details yesterday, such as where and when the conference would be held. More important, they acknowledged that they have no guarantees that any of the key players will attend. After his speech yesterday afternoon, Bush hit the telephone to call the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
"It will take work to get there," said Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch. "We wouldn't be launching ourselves on this enterprise if we didn't feel some confidence that there is a willingness in the region to embrace the path to peace. We believe that this is a moment for everybody to push the 'go' button and try and make this work."
Bush's speech came as the division of the Palestinian territories appears to be hardening. Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement -- and designated a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and Israel -- seized control of the Gaza Strip last month in a bloody uprising. Bush and the Europeans have moved to bolster the more moderate government of President Mahmoud Abbas, which remains in charge in the West Bank, and Bush yesterday promised $80 million in direct aid to build up Abbas's security forces.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Abbas yesterday and said Israel would proceed with the promised release of 250 Palestinian prisoners later this week, most of them from Abbas's Fatah party. The move, and a provisional amnesty agreement offered to nearly 200 wanted Fatah militiamen in the West Bank, represent incremental steps intended to improve Abbas's political standing within the fractured Palestinian electorate.
But Palestinian officials had hoped for more from the meeting, the first between the two leaders since a summit in Egypt last month when Olmert promised to release the prisoners, a fraction of the roughly 10,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel holds. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Olmert's gestures would not help Palestinian moderates unless formal negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state are restarted. Such talks have not been held since January 2001.
"In order to rebuild the faith of the Palestinian and Israeli publics in the peace process, we must tackle the short term and long term simultaneously," Fayyad said. "Who are we supposed to have an agreement with? Ourselves?"
Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin called Israel's moves "measured steps across a broad spectrum" but acknowledged Abbas's greater sense of urgency to begin peace talks. "The Palestinians want this to go faster, Israel wants it to go slower, and what you are seeing is something in between," she said.
Israeli officials welcomed Bush's conference plan yesterday, but Hamas mocked the notion. "The promise to form a Palestinian state is old," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, according to the Associated Press. "It will not be implemented. The opposite, instead, has happened. Instead of two states, he has divided our people into two governments."
Bush's latest foray into the thicket of Middle East politics leaves him trying to salvage some sort of legacy in the region as time runs short on his presidency. Success is predicated on the ability of three deeply weakened leaders to find a way to come together. As Bush's approval ratings remain mired among the lowest of the modern era, Olmert's political position appears precarious following last year's war in Lebanon. And Abbas has just lost much of his territory.
Bush originally planned to deliver a speech last month on the anniversary of his 2002 speech committing to setting terms for a Palestinian state by now, but the Hamas takeover of Gaza forced the White House to shelve the idea for weeks. Now, with the appointment of former British prime minister Tony Blair as a Middle East envoy, Bush decided to go forward in hopes of isolating Hamas.
Bush called upon Palestinians to reject Hamas. "This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians," he said. "And now comes a moment of choice." Making that choice, he added, is the only path to a Palestinian state. "To make this prospect a reality," he said, "the Palestinian people must decide that they want a future of decency and hope -- not a future of terror and death."
To shore up Abbas, Bush promised to send $80 million directly to his government, rather than to contractors as originally earmarked. He called for a new donors conference that would include nations such as Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. "The international community must rise to the moment and provide decisive support to responsible Palestinian leaders working for peace," he said.
The president also called on both sides to make concessions. Arab states, he said, should end "the fiction that Israel does not exist," stop the incitement of violence in official media and send cabinet-level visitors to Israel. Israel, he said, should support Abbas, remove unauthorized outposts and halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. Blair is expected to present additional ideas when he meets Thursday in Lisbon with Rice and the Quartet, which includes the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
But the fall conference was quickly met with skepticism among Middle East experts. "The Arabs will support any effort that will create some sense of movement," said Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution. "But it's hard to see how you're going to be able to sell the idea of a meeting and taking some political risk that entails accepting Israel without any guarantee of movement on a Palestinian state or any other incentives."
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington advocacy group, called it too little, too late. "The time to have acted would have been when [Abbas] was first elected and had the support of the majority of Palestinians, or when an Israeli prime minister was strong and popular," he said. "At this point, due to our neglect, neither leader has the sufficient support of their people to make the tough decisions needed to forge peace."
Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.