Bush to bolster Abbas and seek peace talks
WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush announced an initiative on Monday to shore up the Palestinian president and to begin building a Palestinian state, signaling that his administration will use its remaining months to make a major push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Bush called for a regional peace conference this fall to be led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that would include high-level Arab envoys and their counterparts from Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. He exhorted Israel's Arab neighbors to open talks with Israel and to show leadership by "ending the fiction that Israel does not exist" and "stopping the incitement of hatred in their official media."
He also urged them to send cabinet-level visitors to Israel, a request directed implicitly at America's closest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, which has refused to do so.
"With all these steps, today's Arab leaders can show themselves to be the equals of peacemakers like Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan," Bush said.
He even took a rare jab at Israel, using the word "occupation" to refer to the Israeli presence in the West Bank.
With Gaza now under the control of the militant Islamic group Hamas, Bush said Palestinians have arrived at a "moment of choice" between the violent path that Hamas has charted against Israel and the more peaceful route to a Palestinian state embraced by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his Fatah faction, which retains control of the West Bank. Hamas would be excluded from the regional meeting that Bush proposed.
The planned meeting, the first of its kind in Bush's presidency, signals another pivotal shift for an administration that is desperately seeking some kind of foreign policy victory in the volatile Middle East that would draw attention away from the war in Iraq. For several years, the Bush administration has eschewed direct engagement in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and has refused to press Israel to dismantle settlements or to sit down at the table with Palestinian counterparts to discuss a future Palestinian state.
But now the United States is mired in Iraq and looking for a way to build good will among Arab allies that have pushed for America to re-engage in Middle East peace talks. Administration officials also are hoping to capitalize on growing anti-Hamas sentiment among leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Both of those countries have diplomatic relations with Israel; the big question remains whether Saudi Arabia, which does not, will embrace the administration's approach.
The most notable previous Middle East peace conference was a regional meeting held in Madrid in 1991 under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union and the United States during the administration of the first Bush.
To try to gain support for the American position, the current Bush is sending Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the Middle East at the end of July. They will prod Arab leaders to show up for the regional meeting, which is at an undetermined place and date, administration officials said.
Administration officials said that while the guest list had not been fixed — it remains unclear, for example, whether Syria will be invited — Bush would not have gone out on a limb with such an announcement if Rice had not received some assurances from Arab allies that they would not embarrass Bush by boycotting a meeting.
Hamas denounced Bush's announcement. "We condemn this American conference which aims to serve the interests of the Zionist enemy," a spokesman for Hamas, Ismail Radwan, told Agence France-Presse.
Several critics of Bush's Middle East policy said his speech on Monday should have been delivered two years ago, after Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, and before Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006.
Another criticism was made by Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "Dividing the region into extremists and moderates may sound nice, neat and tidy in a speech," he said, "but on the ground there is a huge gray area that the president apparently refuses to acknowledge."
Hours before Bush spoke, Abbas went to Jerusalem for another meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. These meetings are a direct result of American pressure on Olmert to try to talk about a "political horizon" for a future Palestinian state.
But with the putative state split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, American, Israeli and Fatah policies seem to be aligned in trying to make the West Bank a model for the Palestinian future and the focus for aid and diplomacy. Another aspect of that policy is to squeeze Hamas in Gaza, preventing normal trading or business relations, but allowing imports of food supplies, fuel and medicine.
Olmert confirmed that Israel planned to release 250 Palestinian prisoners, of 10,000 currently held, by the end of the week, probably on Friday, after an Israeli cabinet committee approved the names. The release is intended to bolster Abbas and show the benefits of moderation. The Israelis emphasized that none of them were guilty of killing Israelis.
Bush also announced that Abbas would receive about $80 million to help the Palestinian Authority overhaul its security forces. While the money is not new — it had previously been set aside for Palestinian needs — it will now go directly to Abbas, and will not be funneled through outside organizations, administration officials said.
Administration officials said more aid would come after Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is now the envoy for the Middle East "quartet" of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, reports success in building a plan to bolster Palestinian security and political institutions.