Bush Evades Timelines for Middle East Peace

In a press conference with visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. President George W. Bush today called on Israel to halt settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Bush also stated that the Road Map is the only means through which his two-state vision for a Palestinian-Israeli peace can be achieved. However, the American president refrained from setting timelines-a critical issue for Palestinians who maintain that unabated settlement expansion and the construction of the Wall will prevent the establishment of a viable, contiguous and independent Palestinian state.

Bush called on Israel to improve the daily lives of Palestinians but did not list the steps or deadlines required of Israel to create the necessary changes. There was no mention of checkpoints or travel restrictions, two of the greatest obstacles to Palestinians’ freedom of movement and quality of life.

While acknowledging the democratic reforms undertaken by Abbas in accordance with Palestinian obligations under the 2003 Road Map, Bush did not point out that Israel has yet to fulfill its Road Map requirements, saying only that the U.S. continues to "remind" Israel of its obligations.

Bush noted that "as progress toward security is made" in accordance with the Road Map, Israel should withdraw to positions held on 28 September 2000. However, Palestinians have already completed the major security requirements required to secure that withdrawal by Israel. A Minister of the Interior has been appointed to oversee the Palestinian security apparatuses; those apparatuses have been incorporated into three services. Also, a cease-fire has been secured and maintained, which has reduced the level of violence.

Contradicting his own prior statements that Israel should not undertake any activity in contravention to its Road Map obligations or which prejudices final status negotiations toward the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem, Bush stated in his press conference today that Israel’s "barrier must be a security barrier, not a political one." Such a position could be interpreted as a U.S. acceptance of the Wall depending on how it is labeled, despite its de facto annexation of Palestinian land.

Bush’s commitment that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit the region before the scheduled mid-August unilateral withdrawal by Israel from the Gaza Strip indicates a U.S. desire to see that the withdrawal is coordinated, which is helpful to the Palestinians. However, Bush did not go the next step by committing U.S. diplomatic effort to final status talks or pinpointing a timeline by which to start those negotiations after the withdrawal, which could prove detrimental to the overall peace process.

Focusing on the Gaza disengagement, Bush pledged $50 million in direct economic aid to the Palestinian Authority. The funds will be used for new housing and infrastructure projects in Gaza. This is a positive development for the poverty-stricken people of the Gaza Strip. Nonetheless, Bush excluded the immediate reconstruction of the Gaza airport and construction of the Gaza seaport. Such could project a U.S. disinterest in Palestinian sovereignty over the means of Palestinians’ access to the world after the Israeli withdrawal. The moderate financial support Bush pledged to such projects should be complemented by a more comprehensive show of political support as well.