Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bush strikes back?

Ehud Olmert may be learning that it’s not a good idea to insult President Bush.

As mentioned in a post yesterday, Olmert used a joint press conference to announce the expansion of Israeli settlements, something Bush specifically asked Israel to halt as part of the peace process he jump-started in December. I thought the timing of the announcement, during a high-profile press conference, was an insult to the president.

Today Bush used the strongest language he’s ever used in support of a Palestinian state. He called for an end to the occupation - the first time he used the word “occupation” in regards to Palestine. He also called for an immediate halt to settlement expansion; for the removal of illegal settlements and checkpoints; compensation for Palestinian refugees who lost land to the Israelis; and to set borders for a viable, stable and contiguous Palestinian state.

It’s surprising given how pro-Israel Bush has been in the past, that he would issue a statement loaded with terms and conditions that will displease the Israelis. Bush did call for the Palestinians to step up their efforts to prevent terrorist activities and conceded that some adjustments to the 1967 borders will be necessary. But still, it was a remarkable statement for someone that critics have said was far too overtly pro-Israel to ever be a fair peace broker. His use of the word “occupation” was sure to rub the Israelis the wrong way. As were his calls for a halt to settlement building and give compensation to refugees, two proposals the Israelis have strongly resisted in the past. And the call for “contiguous” borders for a future Palestinian state is especially interesting since a simple glance at a map shows that the only way to link the West bank and Gaza is by a corridor running across Israel.

I can’t help but wonder if the change in Bush’s position is not a direct result of his feeling insulted by Olmert at their press conference. Its well known that Bush is a proud man and a man that doesn’t forget snubs against him. Perhaps there was also a little divine intervention at play as well. Bush was scheduled to take a short flight to the West bank to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, but bad weather grounded his helicopter. He went by car instead, getting a chance to see from the ground the checkpoints that Palestinians must deal with on a daily basis. Bush even talked about the experience during his meeting with Abbas.

“My whole motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped,” Bush said later. “I'm not so exactly sure that's what happens to the average person.” Maybe it gave him a better appreciation for the frustration on the Palestinian side.

In reality all sides involved basically know what a final resolution to the Israel-Palestine problem, the two-state solution, looks like. Israel needs to withdraw to the 1967 borders and dismantle most of its settlements (which make the West Bank look like a piece of Swiss cheese and prevent the formation of any viable Palestinian state), while the Palestinians must give up their claims to land that is now part of Israel proper (with compensation for their loss) and take serious steps towards fighting terrorism and corruption. The United States gives billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year. Holding the money back would be a powerful tool to motivate them to make the tough steps necessary for peace (as would development aid to Palestine). The question now is if Bush finally feels it’s the time to use it.
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