The first leg of President George W. Bush’s whirlwind January tour of the Middle East took him to Jerusalem, where, in his first visit as president, he tried to breathe life into the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations launched under US auspices at Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007. The talks remain moribund, but ears pricked up during a speech Bush delivered at the King David Hotel on January 10. Several formulations seemed downright alien to the lexicon from which the Bush White House has generally drawn. The next morning, Guardian readers awoke to this headline, for instance: “Bush Calls for End to Israeli Occupation.” An editorial in the Independent heralded “a welcome change of tone,” while the Washington Post’s top story proclaimed: “Bush Alters Stand on Palestinians.”

Did he? Yes, in some particulars. But a closer look at the text of the speech, as well as its context, counsels against thinking that the Bush administration, having adopted Israel’s stances for seven years, will now become an honest broker. The opening boilerplate gestured toward parity:

Good afternoon. I’d like to, first, thank Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas for their hospitality during my trip here to the Holy Land. We had very good meetings, and now is the time to make difficult choices. I underscored to both Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas that progress needs to be made on four parallel tracks. First, both sides need to fulfill their commitments under the road map. Second, the Palestinians need to build their economy and their political and security institutions. And to do that, they need the help of Israel, the region and the international community. Third, I reiterate my appreciation for the Arab League peace initiative, and I call upon the Arab countries to reach out to Israel, a step that is long overdue. In addition to these three tracks, both sides are getting down to the business of negotiating. I called upon both leaders to make sure their teams negotiate seriously, starting right now. I strongly supported the decision of the two leaders to continue their regular summit meetings, because they are the ones who can, and must, and—I am convinced—will lead. I share with these two leaders the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. Both of these leaders believe that the outcome is in the interest of their peoples and are determined to arrive at a negotiated solution to achieve it.

Then the president uttered a phrase he never had before:

The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967.

While Bush had previously spoken of Israeli “occupation,” here was a much stronger statement, indeed, the strongest yet from his administration. In November 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell had said, “For the sake of Palestinians and Israelis alike, the occupation must end. And it can only end with negotiations.” While Powell envisioned Israel ending its military occupation through negotiations, seven years later Bush seemed to posit an end to occupation as the necessary precedent of successful bargaining.

Such a statement from the chief executive would have been unthinkable just ten years ago. In May 1998, the Clinton administration felt compelled to disown its First Lady’s mild observation that “it will be in the long-term interest of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state.” Although President Bill Clinton came around to endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state toward the end of his second term, a search of his public papers reveals not one remark upon Israel’s occupation, much less a clear injunction that it end.

Yet rhetorical advances do not a policy change make. If Bush were serious that an “end to the occupation” is the sine qua non of meaningful peace talks, then he would press Israel to withdraw its soldiers and settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem posthaste. He would waste no time with the road map, or the post-Annapolis parleys that he sought to jump-start in Jerusalem, as these processes pointedly postpone Israeli withdrawal to the end.

More to the point, when Bush mentions an “end to the occupation,” he clearly does not mean that Israel must completely relinquish the territories it conquered in 1967, as required by UN resolutions and international law.

The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent. It is vital that each side understands that satisfying the other’s fundamental objectives is key to a successful agreement. Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interests of both parties. Achieving an agreement will require painful political concessions by both sides. While territory is an issue for both parties to decide, I believe that any peace agreement between them will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.

Lurking among Bush’s protestations of support for a “viable, contiguous” Palestinian state is a quiet reiteration of his April 2004 promise to Ariel Sharon, then Israeli prime minister. In an exchange of letters with Sharon, Bush wrote, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Those “major Israeli population centers” are the illegal settlement blocs that nearly surround East Jerusalem and jut deep into the West Bank. After an “end to the occupation,” in other words, these colonies would be allowed to stand.

The Palestinians, and critics of the US-sponsored peace processes since the 1990s, have used the words “viable” and “contiguous” to point to the incoherence of a “Palestinian state” criss-crossed by settlement blocs and the bypass roads connecting them to Israel proper. It is tempting, therefore, to see in Bush’s use of those words tacit acknowledgement that previous visions of “statehood” have not passed the basic threshold of viability. Israel’s “generous offer” at Camp David in 2000, for instance, would seem exposed as nothing of the sort.

Yet Bush’s actual deeds indicate otherwise. In January 2004, to cite one example, the US submitted a 112-page brief to the International Court of Justice, arguing strenuously against the court’s competence to judge the legality of the wall that Israel had begun constructing in the West Bank. In contravention of overwhelming international opinion, which condemns the wall as illegal, the Bush administration tried every trick in the book to shield Israel from consequence. How can an administration that refused to recognize the court’s eventual decision against the wall, which cuts up the West Bank into disconnected enclaves in a manner compared unfavorably to apartheid, expect anyone to believe its claim to support a “viable, contiguous” Palestinian state?

Perhaps the grimmest such irony came in more colloquial language when Bush told ABC News in Jerusalem that “Swiss cheese isn’t going to work when it comes to the outline of a state.” Here the president was referring to Gaza, the narrow coastal strip whose complete siege and physical and political isolation from the West Bank his administration has joined Israel (and Arab and European allies) in brutally enforcing.

Though few mainstream commentators spotted this discrepancy, many noted that the next sentence in Bush’s speech affirmed his support for redress for Palestinians made refugees in 1948.

I believe we need to look to the establishment of a Palestinian state and new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue.

But although compensation is one recognized means of resolving these people’s claims, Bush’s speech actually consolidated his rejection of the real rights of Palestinian refugees.

UN General Assembly Resolution 194, passed in 1949 with US backing, stipulates that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.” In his Jerusalem speech and elsewhere, including in his 2004 letter to Sharon, Bush replaces this specific wording with a vague reference to compensation. In previous statements, this reference is coupled with another to “resettlement” of an indeterminate number of Palestinian refugees in the future Palestinian state, even though these refugees do not hail from the places that would make up that state. Everywhere, the concept of the right of return is absent, even though Resolution 194 is clear that both compensation and return are rights to be respected. In his speech in Jerusalem, Bush essentially arrogated to himself the power to grant or deny Palestinians various rights guaranteed to them under (non-binding, but widely recognized) international law.

Consider further that Bush linked his position on refugees to his “vision” of “establish[ing] Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.” Earlier in his trip to Israel, he stated this position more directly: “The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state.” All states have the obligation to serve and represent all of their citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Privileging one group of citizens over another based on ethnic or religious affiliation is defined by international law as apartheid—specifically, it is a violation of the UN’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973) and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965). For Bush to echo Olmert’s demand before the Annapolis conference that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” as a condition of final status talks, is to sanction the laws of Israel that codify discrimination against its Palestinian citizens, who comprise at least 20 percent of its population. The reality is that Israel, as it exists today, is a binational, multi-religious state whose composition defies Bush’s—and Olmert’s—simplistic formula whereby Israel is “Jewish” and Palestine is “Palestinian.”

In any event, and despite Bush’s repeated exhortations that Israel and the Palestinians reach a peace accord in 2008, it seems doubtful that the parties will sit down for final status negotiations before his term is out.

I reaffirm to each leader that implementation of any agreement is subject to implementation of the road map. Neither party should undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudices the final status negotiations. On the Israeli side that includes ending settlement expansion and removing unauthorized outposts. On the Palestinian side that includes confronting terrorists and dismantling terrorist infrastructure.

This passage eviscerates the earlier stance that the “point of departure” for an agreement is the occupation’s end, tying progress instead to the benchmarks of the road map. Yet it is hard to imagine much progress, given that even Bush’s tepid call to end settlement expansion is going unheeded by Israel. On December 23, 2007, Israel’s Construction Ministry confirmed Olmert’s post-Annapolis announcement that its 2008 budget includes plans to build 500 housing units in Jabal Abu Ghunaym (Har Homa) and 240 housing units in Ma’aleh Adumim, both settlements built on occupied lands outside of Jerusalem. About that contested city, Bush was non-committal:

I know Jerusalem is a tough issue. Both sides have deeply felt political and religious concerns. I fully understand that finding a solution to this issue will be one of the most difficult challenges on the road to peace, but that is the road we have chosen to walk. Security is fundamental. No agreement and no Palestinian state will be born of terror. I reaffirm America’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s security. The establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue. The Palestinian people deserve it. And it will enhance the stability of the region, and it will contribute to the security of the people of Israel. The peace agreement should happen, and can happen, by the end of this year. I know each leader shares that important goal, and I am committed to doing all I can to achieve it. Thank you.

Bush is plainly not doing all he can to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace. But about “Israel’s security,” he is very serious. In August 2007, the US signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel to increase US military aid by 25 percent, totaling $30 billion over the next decade. For the first installment, the State Department’s 2009 budget request includes $2.55 billion in Foreign Military Financing for Israel, a 9 percent increase in military aid over actual spending in 2007. This lavish generosity keeps Israel far better armed than all of its Arab neighbors—despite their own ample US military aid packages—not to speak of the Palestinians, who remain, Bush’s “vision” notwithstanding, under occupation with no end in sight.

How to cite this article:

Josh Ruebner "Bush in Jerusalem," Middle East Report 246 (Spring 2008).

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