Trying to breathe new life into the Mideast peace process, President Bush got an immediate reminder Monday of the difficulty of his task when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted a U.S.-brokered conference should deal with “issues of substance.”
The Palestinians and Israelis can’t even agree on an agenda for the international session, expected to be held in the U.S. in November, though they are meeting regularly in preparation. Palestinians want it to produce an outline for a peace deal, while the Israelis want more vague declarations.
Appearing before reporters with Abbas after an hour-long meeting that also included Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Bush didn’t mention the conference. He promised the United States “will be a strong partner” in establishing an independent state for Palestinians.
“I believe that the vision of two states side by side in peace is achievable,” Bush said.
But Abbas said the meeting should be the precursor to “full negotiations on the permanent status.”
“We have faith and trust,” Abbas said, emphasizing a hopeful tone.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss the president’s private talks, said “there will not be a negotiation” at the November meeting.
Mideast focus for U.N. meeting
Bush’s Mideast focus came as he opened a three-day trip here for the annual U.N. General Assembly.
Five years ago, Bush became the first U.S. president to fully and publicly call for a separate, independent Palestine alongside Israel. He has taken heavy criticism since, however, for his reluctance to ask hard compromises of close ally Israel and to put American capital on the line to get a deal.
But in July, the president announced he would organize an international conference on the Middle East, in possibly his administration’s last chance to produce something on the decades-old conflict that has long bedeviled American presidents.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and the region to build momentum. The White House also announced Monday that first lady Laura Bush is traveling to the Mideast in October. Her country itinerary was not released, but White House press secretary Dana Perino said one purpose of her travels is “to promote U.S. public diplomacy.”
Bush stepped in with his own talks with Abbas and Fayyad, and a separate one-on-one session alone with Abbas. He aimed to prepare for the peace conference by bolstering the two moderate leaders. That task is especially important to the U.S. since the Palestinian territories split this summer into two camps ruled by rival governments — one controlled by Abbas in the West Bank and the other by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“I appreciate the fact that you’re fighting the extremists who don’t share the same kind of view,” Bush told Abbas.
'Vigorous peace process' promised
Abbas said it was critical that the American president maintain current high levels of support for his government, the senior White House official said.
The U.S. believes, too, that “a vigorous peace process” that shows people in Gaza what they can’t get from Hamas is the best way to strengthen Abbas’ standing, the official said.
After meeting the Palestinians, the president received an update on the volatile region from his longtime ally Tony Blair, who after stepping down as British prime minister became the Mideast envoy for the Quartet — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia. Blair briefed Bush on his first extended visits to the region in his new role, which he just completed.
The administration’s new effort shows that the Mideast now has the full attention of the White House, said Linda Jamison, a senior fellow on multilateral affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mideast peace conference hits snags
But the administration has a tall order.
The meeting is hitting snags already. Besides the Palestinian-Israeli disagreement, traditional Arab allies, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have said they are not interested in the session unless it has clear goals and a realistic chance of achieving them.
The White House official cast some doubt on Rice’s statement Sunday that “it would be natural” for Syria, along with other key Arab neighbors, to be invited to the conference. Syria is among the countries that remain technically at war with Israel, and maintains a consistent anti-Israel stance. Earlier this month, Israel is alleged to have launched an airstrike on what some reports have said was a North Korean nuclear facility in Syria.
The official said “no final decisions” have been made yet on the conference’s participant list.
It also is far from clear that the Israelis and Palestinians can make any more progress now than in the past. Many accords have fallen dormant or have been overtaken by events. And peace talks always founder over the hardest questions: the final borders between Israel and a new independent Palestine, control over disputed Jerusalem and a solution for millions of Palestinian refugees.
The president’s statement about two states being “achievable” before the end of his presidency is justifiably optimistic, but “very hard.” “I don’t think anybody underestimates the challenge here, made much worse by the Hamas coup in Gaza,” said the White House official.
Bush skips climate change meeting
Bush also met with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, focusing on the frustrating, six-year drive for a global free trade pact. Recent progress in the World Trade Organization talks could induce major developing countries such as Brazil and India to open up their manufacturing markets, something that has been a major sticking point in the deal.
After skipping an unprecedented climate-change summit hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Bush was attending only a small dinner Ban organized for Monday evening with key players. Ban sought to build political momentum for deep cutbacks in emissions of carbon dioxide and other man-made gases blamed for global warming. Bush opposes mandatory limits.
Bush is hosting his own climate meeting in Washington on Thursday and Friday.