Bush Opens Tour With Call to Act
Thursday, January 10, 2008
JERUSALEM, Jan. 9 -- President Bush, on the first visit here of his administration, demanded Wednesday that Israelis shut down unauthorized settler outposts on Palestinian territory, called on Palestinian authorities to take steps to halt rocket attacks against Israel and issued a sharp warning to Iran.
Even as he insisted he had not come to the region to impose the terms of a peace agreement on Israelis and Palestinians, Bush spent part of the first day of an eight-day trip to the Middle East issuing edicts to the parties -- or, in his words, nudging them toward an accord that he hopes will eventually lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and lasting Arab-Israeli peace.
"The only way to have lasting peace, the only way for an agreement to mean anything, is for the two parties to come together and make the difficult choices," Bush said at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "But we'll help, and we want to help. If it looks like there needs to be a little pressure, Mr. Prime Minister, you know me well enough to know I'll be more than willing to provide it."
Bush is on his first extended tour of a region that has figured prominently in the foreign policy challenges confronting his administration. Accused of years of disengagement from Middle East peacemaking, Bush is making a last-ditch try for an Israeli-Palestinian accord at a time of continuing violence between the parties and deep fractures within Palestinian society. He is also trying to marshal regional support for a policy of confrontation toward Iran.
Bush's visit is being watched closely in the region -- the arrival ceremony in Tel Aviv was shown live on Israeli television -- and security is tight. By 6 p.m., what would normally have been a congested rush hour in Jerusalem resembled light weekend traffic as some residents left work and many shops closed early.
In Bush's talks with Olmert and other Israeli officials, Iran's rising regional influence and nuclear ambitions were key concerns. While Israeli officials have made little secret of their skepticism about a recent U.S. intelligence report concluding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, Olmert professed himself pleased with Bush's assurances that he still took the threat seriously -- though he did not specify the nature of the assurances.
"I certainly am encouraged and reinforced, having heard the position of the United States under the leadership of George Bush, particularly on this subject," said Olmert, who seemed to embarrass Bush a bit with his lavish praise of the president's support and "courage."
Bush offered familiar rhetoric about the threat from Tehran but had sharp new language about the incident Sunday in which Iranian patrol boats harassed U.S. warships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz. "There will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple. And my advice to them is, don't do it," Bush said.
On the Palestinian-Israeli front, Bush and his advisers have made clear that they do not think it possible to achieve the creation of a Palestinian state -- a goal the president set five years ago -- during his presidency.
Instead they are hoping for an agreement on the elements of such a state, including its borders and the status of Jerusalem, with the implementation of an agreement to come during a later administration. U.S. officials say they do not believe the Palestinians have the necessary security forces and other institutions to function as a state right now.
Even the more limited goal is a tall order, as Bush acknowledged. He and his advisers suggested Wednesday that his very presence here prompted Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to direct their negotiating teams this week to get to work on "core issues" such as the future status of Jerusalem.
From the moment Air Force One touched down in Tel Aviv to the late afternoon news conference at Olmert's residence, Bush displayed his customary optimism about the road ahead. "I view this as an historic moment," he said. "It's a historic opportunity."