On First Trip to Israel, Bush Hopes to Inject Vigor Into Peace Talks
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
JERUSALEM, Jan. 7 -- In the six weeks since Israeli and Palestinian leaders left Annapolis, Md., pledging to end "bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples," violence has escalated over long-standing territorial disputes and security concerns, leaving little optimism here on the eve of President Bush's visit that the fledgling dialogue will bring peace.
In the first visit to Israel of his presidency, Bush arrives Wednesday hoping to breathe new life into talks aimed at achieving a final accord by the end of this year. But the president is already scaling back those ambitions, saying now it may be possible to set only the "definition" of a Palestinian state by the time he leaves office.
Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have met since the Annapolis talks, the challenges facing their long-divided peoples have only deepened during that time.
In December, the number of rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip -- controlled by the armed Hamas movement, which is not involved in the talks -- surged to 303, the second most of any month last year. January's tally, which includes a Katyusha rocket attack that Israeli officials said was the deepest strike ever from Gaza, is on pace to exceed that total.
Meanwhile, Israel has unveiled plans to expand Jewish settlements and conducted its most extensive military operations in months across the bifurcated Palestinian territories. Israeli forces in Gaza and the West Bank have killed at least 94 Palestinians since Annapolis -- 15 of them civilians, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, including three on Monday. Two Israelis have been killed during that period, a pair of settlers attacked by gunmen while hiking near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The developments demonstrate the enormous challenge facing a late-term president seeking a peace deal that has proved elusive for decades. A poll published Monday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 59 percent of Palestinians consider the Annapolis process a failure. A poll conducted in Israel at the end of December by the same organization and the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University found that 75 percent of Israelis believe the same thing.
"There have been major setbacks since Annapolis, just as historically when we have had these summits there has always been a disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground," said Diana Buttu, a former Abbas adviser. "There could soon come a time when people no longer believe in negotiations as a means to end the conflict."
While observers have long been calling for bolder U.S. involvement in peace negotiations, Bush has moved to tamp down expectations in recent days.
Asked last week whether he believes his vision of a Palestinian state could be realized by the time he leaves office, Bush sounded a cautious note. "The definition of a state can be achieved," Bush told Alhurra television. "The implementation of a state will be subject to a road map. In other words, there's a lot of work that has to be done."
In embarking on a push for peace here near the close of his presidency, Bush is following the path of several White House predecessors, including Bill Clinton, who made an ill-fated attempt at an agreement at Camp David in 2000, months before he left office.
Bush -- considered among the most pro-Israeli of U.S. presidents while at the same time the first to call for the creation of a Palestinian state -- has been seen as less engaged than Clinton on Israeli-Palestinian issues. The White House disputes that assessment. But Bush's first entry into peacemaking here, a phased process known as the "road map," was suspended soon after it was presented in 2003 amid a wave of violence.
The president will meet with senior Israeli officials in Jerusalem, including Olmert, who, though beholden to a coalition government that includes hard-liners, has indicated a willingness to discuss handing over territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem if Palestinian leaders can stifle the armed groups at war with Israel. While Bush has indicated he will push the Israelis to halt settlement construction, his aides said they did not expect him to propose solutions to such difficult issues as the division of Jerusalem or the final borders of a future Palestinian state.