Bush's visit to Israel was preceded by the seizure of swathes of Palestinian land and the announcement that there will be no halt in settlement building. What hope for negotiations then, asks Saleh Al-Naami
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OFFICIAL VERSUS POPULAR: Israeli President Shimon Peres and US President George W Bush inspect the honour guard during a welcoming ceremony upon Bush's arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport yesterday. Meanwhile, Palestinians prepare anti-Bush banners on the eve of his visit to the Palestinian territories. Official Palestinian welcome sharply contrasts with popular discontent in anticipation of the presence of the US president in the region
Mohamed Al-Nuseir, 57, who lives in Bethlehem, had no warning that Israel was about to confiscate his family's land. The first he heard was on Saturday, when he was sitting in front of the television with his family and the satellite news presenter announced the Israeli government's decision to seize Palestinian territory south of the Mount Abu Ghoneim settlement bordering occupied Jerusalem in order to build 1,000 units to house yet more settlers. Nor had he conceived such a thing possible, not on the eve of American President George Bush's visit to Israel. His family, like all the others in the area, has all the documents to prove its legal ownership of the land.
Yet Bush's visit has been preceded by the announcement of the seizure of wide swathes of Palestinian territory for the construction of residential units for Israeli settlers. The move has surprised even the Israelis. It suggests, says Israeli writer Emmanuel Aharoni, that "either Israel realises that settlement expansion is not a concern for Bush, or Olmert's government is making light of Bush's simplistic position."
It is not only the building of settlements that flourished on the eve of Bush's visit. The Israeli army also increased the number of military checkpoints, further restricting Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank where, theoretically at least, the government of Salam Fayyad -- a man Bush has several times hailed as a role model for politicians in the Middle East -- is in charge.
At dawn last Monday Fatima Sidr, 32, was forced to give birth in the middle of the street after occupation soldiers stationed at a checkpoint in Hebron in the southern West Bank prevented her husband from taking her to hospital.
The positions Bush expressed in interviews with major Israeli television channels and newspapers last Friday are even more shocking than Israeli actions on the eve of his visit. They mark a clear regression from the stances Bush had declared in his opening speech at the Annapolis meeting. In most interviews, Bush said he no longer thought it was possible for an agreement to be reached on establishing a Palestinian state before the end of 2008 and that the most that could be hoped for was an "agreement on the definition of the Palestinian state" leading Alof Ben, a political commentator with Haaretz newspaper, to write that "it appears Bush's vision has shrunk from trying to establish a Palestinian state to merely formulating a definition of it for inclusion in the dictionary."
In his interviews, Bush repeatedly stressed that he does not want to place any pressure on Israel to show flexibility in responding to the Palestinians' demands. He also contradicted himself, saying he supported Israel annexing settlements and at other times that settlements were "an obstacle blocking the success of the negotiation process".
The mechanism Bush suggested for resolving the difference between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel over the settlement issue is highly problematic -- he had proposed setting up a committee with American leadership to supervise the implementation of the first stage of the roadmap, whereby Israel is obliged to freeze settlement and the PA is obliged to quell and disarm the Palestinian resistance movements and halt incitement against Israel. Bush does not, however, object to the Israeli position that freezing settlement building can only take place after the PA fulfils its obligations, which means that implementation of this stage might continue forever.
During those interviews Bush laid out another goal for his visit to the region, saying that he would work to convince Arab leaders to accept Israel as a regional partner, as this is in "Arab interests".
Bush's support for Israel, though, continues to fall short of the expectations of the Israeli prime minister who prepared a list of demands to present to Bush when he arrives and which, if met, will pull the curtain for good on any opportunity to hold real negotiations.
Maariv newspaper revealed last Friday that Olmert and his ministers intended to ask Bush for a presidential statement acknowledging Israel's "vital interests in the West Bank". Israel's second best-selling paper also reported that Olmert had asked the heads of his security agencies to compile a list of strategic interests that should be recognised in Bush's statement. They will include the demand that the US administration accept Israeli military control of the West Bank for the foreseeable future and offer unconditional support for any military operation Tel Aviv might wage against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Maariv interpreted such demands as an attempt by Olmert to use Bush's visit to bolster his domestic political standing ahead of the publication of the Venograd Committee's final report, which is expected to be highly critical of Olmert's handling of Israel's war on Lebanon.
The PA has itself shown extraordinary keenness to display its own determination to implement roadmap obligations ahead of Bush's visit. It intensified its detentions of Hamas activists and leaders in the West Bank and closed their institutions. It went so far that the PA now has the approval of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, which issued a report saying President Mahmoud Abbas's security apparatus was waging a tireless war against Hamas and had arrested 250 of its leaders and activists in recent weeks.
Abdullah Abu Kamil, head of Palestinian intelligence in Nablus, argues that the report is part of an Israeli attempt to portray the PA and Fayyad government as Israeli agents. He notes that the Israeli army invaded Nablus and arrested scores of Hamas members just as the PA was waging its own campaign, making it look as if the PA was no more than a security agent for Israel.
For its part the PA, represented by its president and senior officials, hopes Bush's visit will pressure Olmert into halting settlement activities before negotiations begin. Yet Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister and head of Israel's negotiating delegation, has already told her Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qurei that settlement in Jerusalem and its environs will continue, while Olmert's office has repeatedly stressed that negotiations will not address final solution issues.
Palestinian researcher and writer Walid Mudalil believes PA calculations on the results of Bush's visit are wide of the mark. The Palestinian leadership, he argues, should instead seek other ways to strengthen its position.
"Those who believe the Annapolis meeting pushed negotiations with Israel towards a solution to the conflict are misleading themselves. Anyone who thinks that Bush will take any steps to shake Israel from its positions is wrong," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. (see pp. 2, 11 & 12)