On Mideast trip, Bush hopes to propel historic Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking

In Jerusalem Wednesday, the president called for two democracies, Israel and Palestine, to live side by side.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Mideast talks: President Bush (c.), landed in Israel Wednesday for talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
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The patriotic tunes that greeted President Bush as he arrived in Israel Wednesday for the first time in his presidency set the tone for a historic visit.

But given the laudatory remarks of Mr. Bush and his Israeli counterparts on the airport tarmac, the visit seemed focused on celebrating and strengthening the US-Israel relationship, throwing into question whether Bush would be equally welcomed Thursday in the West Bank.

In their speeches under a brisk and briefly sunny sky, neither Bush nor Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres mentioned Palestinians by name, only by inference. Mr. Peres, once at the center of peacemaking in the 1990s, quoted the words Bush himself intoned in a speech in 2002, saying "My vision is of two states living side by side in peace and security."

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Said Peres: "Then it seemed remote. Now it is the basis for negotiations."

Bush spoke about the importance of Israel and the US as allies who built "two great democracies under difficult circumstances." "I knew I'd come back, because Israel is a special place," Bush said, emphasizing that he had been here once prior to being elected president. "The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state."

Those rang as reassuring words in Israelis' ears, in part because he used the same language that Mr. Olmert has been reiterating in recent speeches leading up to and following the Annapolis, Md., peace summit in November.

Israel is ready to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state, Olmert says, only if Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world make their peace with Israel as a Jewish state.

This new mantra is read by many here as a statement of Israel's position vis-à-vis its own Arab-Palestinian citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the Israeli populace, and the possibility that Israel may consider "swapping" some of that population into the territory of the future Palestinian state in order to maintain a Jewish majority.

Later in the day, however, Bush held an afternoon meeting with Olmert, and in comments afterward said that he saw a seriousness on the part of Israel to advance the peace process.

"I believe that two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, is in the best interests of America, Israel, and the world," Bush said. "It's in the interests of all of us that that vision come to be."

Responding to one reporter's question, he came to Olmert's defense in a somewhat folksy and exasperated manner: "You just heard the man's desire to talk about core issues!" In response to another question, Bush said that illegal settlement outposts "oughta go."

Bush also used the opportunity to talk tough on Iran in the wake of this weekend's standoff between US and Iranian military ships in the Strait of Hormuz.

"We also talked about Iran. Iran is a threat to world peace," Bush said as he stood alongside Olmert, and added that he made his position clear on the controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released last month. "I said then that Iran was a threat, Iran is a threat, and Iran will be a threat if the world doesn't come together to stop that country from acquiring nuclear weapons."

Earlier Wednesday, after landing to what Israel calls a "Segel Alef" – or "first class" – state ceremony, including the maximum level of fanfare and an opportunity to shake hands with the country's religious, political and military leaders, Bush took a Marine One helicopter to Jerusalem.

There, he met with Mayor Uri Lupoliansky, who presented him with an engraving of Heinrich Buenting's 1581 cloverleaf map that shows Jerusalem at the center of the world.

Despite the centrality of this troubled sliver of land at the heart of the Jewish-Arab conflict and as a focal point for the three monotheistic faiths, Bush has in his two terms in office avoided making any visits here, in large part because the risks outweighed the benefits.

Bush came into office as the second Israeli-Palestinian intifada was breaking out, and when, for security reasons alone, a trip seemed inadvisable. In the years to follow, after 9/11 and the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospects of promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace looked more and more distant – and almost unworthy of the political capital a visit entails.

Instead, Bush invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the White House, but has not met them on their home turf.

Now, in the last year of his presidency, Bush finds himself with Israeli and Palestinian leaders who appear keen to give peace another go.

But expectations of what can be achieved in 2-1/2 days are surprisingly low. In the past, analysts note, when a US president came to town it usually meant that he had an achievement to celebrate, such as President Carter visiting after the Camp David Accords or President Clinton after the Wye River Accords.

"The real movement always occurred in Washington or in Camp David," says Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science and communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"In terms of the peace process, I think that the expectations that much can come out of this are nil," he says. "If there were a profound announcement that there had been rumors about, a breakthrough on real issues, something that says that the reality on the ground is about to change, that would be something else."

But neither American, Israeli, or Palestinian officials appear to expect any kind of great shift, though there are hopes that this week's promise of the two sides resuming final status talks will translate into real momentum after the colorful fluttering of American flags disappears.

Many here noted that the possibility of a three-way meeting between Bush, Olmert, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was jettisoned, and that that didn't bode well for any breakthroughs.

"You have three leaders who are trying to repair their damaged reputations and the three of them saying, let's build each other up," Mr. Wolfsfeld adds.

Thursday will mark the first time a US president has ever met the Palestinian Authority leadership in their headquarters in Ramallah, which has become a temporary West Bank capital for Mr. Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad.

President Clinton visited in 1998 and came to the Gaza Strip, during which he addressed the Palestinian parliament and applauded the move of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) to cancel a section of their charter calling for Israel's destruction.

At the time, Clinton was able to claim a role at having brought Israelis and Palestinians back to the table at Wye River, and having developed a political persona around the image of a president intimately and personally involved in the ins and outs of Middle East peacemaking.

Neither Presidents George H.W. Bush nor Reagan visited Israel or the Palestinian territories while in office.

So far, Bush's Middle East legacy has been defined by Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There's a sense of Bush making a victory lap without a victory," says Michael Oren, a historian at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author, most recently, of "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776-present."

"He hasn't been engaged here and now he's here very late in the game and he's getting engaged, and in a very limited way," Mr. Oren says. "To the degree that the visit has to do with Israel-Palestine, it's really about Iran," he adds. "On the level of grand strategy you want to get some sort of stability to better deal with Iranian threat."

US officials say that Bush, who is accompanied by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will make it clear to Israel that he opposes the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as an obstacle to peace and will remind Olmert of his promise to remove illegal settlement outposts.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip made it clear that Bush's trip here would not impinge upon their attacks on Israel, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) sent a similar message. Palestinians launched approximately 10 rockets into southern Israel Wednesday, with one of them hitting a house. Two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in Gaza, which the IDF says was aimed at the source of the rocket fire.

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