Posted on May 30, 2005 in Washington Watch

Palestinians have every reason to be pleased with President Bush’s Rose Garden remarks to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. Bush’s words were strong and supportive of the Palestinian leader, demonstrating that the US would not countenance Israeli efforts to diminish Abu Mazen’s accomplishments or his role as the democratically elected Palestinian President. To make the point, early in Bush’s comments he referred to Abbas as “Mr. President” four times in four consecutive sentences, a sharp reminder that the US President doesn’t accept Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s insistence on referring to Abbas as “Chairman.”

Bush also attempted to strengthen Abbas’ hand with remarks clarifying US positions on Israel’s responsibilities according to the Road Map and final status issues. Attempting to take the sting out of the impact of the now infamous letter the US gave to Sharon last year noting that final agreements should recognize “demographic realities,” Bush now stated that, “Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to. A viable two-state solution must ensure contiguity of the West Bank, and a state of scattered territories will not work. There must also be meaningful linkages between the West Bank and Gaza. This is the position of the United States today, it will be the position of the United States at the time of final status negotiations.”

To his credit, President Bush offered a bit more than words. He also arm wrestled hard-line Congressional leaders, many from his own party, winning agreement that $50 million of this year’s $150 million in US aid appropriations for Palestinians would go directly to the PA. It may be a small victory–but it is still a victory.

Bush’s Rose Garden endorsement comes on the heels of comments by US envoy General William Ward who just last week praised the PA’s efforts in the security realm. Said Ward, “The Palestinian Authority has taken essential steps to…restructure its forces, to cause a single line of authority to exist. That will enable a more effective mechanism for dealing with law and order on the streets as well as for combating terrorism.”

And in response to continuing Israeli complaints, Ward delivered this stinging rebuke: “You complain that the Palestinians are not fulfilling their commitments. But what about your commitments?”

But with all this, I must say that I am still not optimistic about prospects for the achievement of Middle East peace.

Just how little progress is being made and how deep the divide between Israelis and Palestinians remains was on display during a plenary session last week at the World Economic Forum in Amman, Jordan. Participating in the panel were European, Israeli and Palestinian officials.

The Palestinian ministers made a rather compelling case of the continuing difficulties they are facing. They noted their concern that with the Gaza disengagement just weeks off, they still have not been substantially engaged by the Israelis and, therefore, still have no clear understanding of Israel’s intentions. As a result of the unilateral Israeli approach, the Palestinians cannot make adequate economic, security, or other logistic plans of their own. Given the uncertainties (will the Palestinians have access and aggress from the Gaza area? will the passage to Egypt be open and under Palestinian control? will they be able to begin building a seaport and rebuild their airport?), Palestinians have no basis upon which to attract investors to participate in post-Israeli withdrawal development efforts.

At the same time, the Palestinians note that Israel’s continuing expansionist activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem only serve to rile the situation and undercut the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to maintain public support for peacemaking.

While the World Economic Forum’s very capable moderator made a determined effort to press the participating Israeli ministers on each of these Palestinian concerns, the Israelis responded as expected by charging that the Palestinians had to do more to crack down on terror and dismantle the “infrastructure of terror” before real cooperation would occur. None of this, I must say, inspired much hope.

As troubling as the persistent Israeli-Palestinian gap was, even more disconcerting was the near total disconnect of the European participants from the reality of the situation. Even when responding to questions, it appeared as if they were reading from prepared scripts. It was as if having abdicated responsibility for the politics of the peace process to the US, the Europeans needed to assure themselves that “all is well.”

With Gaza suffering from systemic poverty, chronic unemployment (youth unemployment is astronomical at about 80%), and lacking in infrastructure, Gazans can’t and won’t be able to wait for months or years after the Israeli withdrawal for signs of real change in their lives.

And if Sharon persists in his unilateral approach, refusing to provide tangible benefits to the PA, the Palestinian’s ability to govern effectively will be jeopardized.

In this context, Bush’s strong words of support for Abu Mazen are good, but as the Palestinian advocacy group, Miftah, noted in its evaluation of the Washington meeting, strong words need concrete actions to make a difference. Words of praise for the Palestinians are important, but for the US to make a difference, a firm hand must be applied to change Israeli behavior if there is to be progress toward peace.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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