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President Says Mideast Peace Accord Possible Within a Year

January 10, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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On the third day of his trip to the Middle East, President Bush predicted that there will be a peace treaty between Israeli and Palestinian leaders before he leaves office -- while acknowledging that such an agreement will require "painful concessions" by both sides. Mideast experts offer perspective on the Mr. Bush's pledge.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The president crossed into the West Bank just after 9:00 a.m. under cloudy skies on his first trip to Ramallah. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted him at the Fatah government’s headquarters, once besieged by the Israeli army.

They spoke to reporters after their meeting.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, President, Palestinian Authority (through translator): This is an historic visit which gives our people great hope that your great nation will stand by their dream.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After his four-hour visit, the president returned to Jerusalem and repeated his belief that a peace agreement can be reached before the end of the year.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He offered one example of what he meant.

GEORGE W. BUSH: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president’s trip began yesterday when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He urged Israelis to put an end to unauthorized outposts on the West Bank.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m under no illusions. It’s going to be hard work. I fully understand that there’s going to be some painful political compromises.

I fully understand that there’s going to be some tough negotiations. And the role of the United States is to help in those negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bush also urged the Palestinians to stop harboring terrorists, a call echoed by Olmert.

EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister of Israel: There will be no peace unless terror is stopped. And as long as there will be terror from Gaza, it will be very, very hard to reach any peaceful understanding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the president’s push for peace was not welcomed in Hamas-ruled Gaza, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered to protest his visit yesterday. Today, Hamas leaders questioned the rhetoric of the meetings.

FAWZI BARHOUM, Hamas Spokesman (through translator): President Bush’s statement is an empty one. We cannot depend on it, and we cannot build the hopes of the Palestinian people on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president said he would return to the region before the end of the year. His eight-day trip continues tomorrow in Kuwait.

Low public expectations

David Makovsky
Project on the Middle East Peace Process
People have to see that there's something different and it's not about speechmaking. And, therefore, the key is, what happens when the president leaves the country between now and his next visit?

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the president's trip so far, we get two views. Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya, a satellite news channel in the Middle East. He's also a senior correspondent for An-Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper.

And David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he's a former editor and diplomatic correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz newspapers in Israel.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

David, to you first. The president said today he thinks there can be a treaty, there should be a treaty. Is that realistic?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Project on the Middle East Peace Process: Well, the good news here is...

JUDY WOODRUFF: By the end of the year, I left out the important part, by the end of 2008.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, the good news here, Judy, is that you have two leaders, for the first time since the Madrid conference launched this whole peace process some 16 years ago, that actually believe that the other side wants peace.

We never had that during the Yasser Arafat era. We have it today, because they also have a common enemy, which is Hamas, that they know, if they fail, the Hamas, the Palestinian rejectionist organization, will be ascendant. That's the good news.

The not-so-good news is that the publics on both sides are pretty jaded. They're disengaged. They watch television. They see Annapolis, and they say, "This is the rerun season."

And by an 89 percent to 10 percent margin in Yedioth Ahronoth (ph), and Palestinian polls is comparable, they asked the question you did, and they said they don't believe that there will be a deal at the end of the year.

So, therefore, it seems that if we have any chance we have to get these people to believe in the enterprise again. And I think that's only if they see it on the ground, they see change on the ground, whether it's checkpoints, where there's more Israeli officials to expedite movement while ensuring security, or Palestinians dealing with incitement on their state-run media, glorifying suicide bombers.

People have to see that there's something different and it's not about speechmaking. And, therefore, the key is, what happens when the president leaves the country between now and his next visit?

Without U.S. focus on this issue, I fear we don't have a high chance, because the people won't be behind the leaders, and then the leaders won't be empowered to cross historic thresholds to make the core decisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're putting a lot of emphasis on what the public is believing and expecting?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes.

Assessing possibility of peace

Hisham Melhem
Al Arabiya TV
There is a breathtaking lack of imagination on the part of the Israelis, the Americans, and the Palestinians as to what to do with the million-and-a-half people who are left under the tender mercies of Hamas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hisham Melhem, do you think it's realistic what George W. Bush has laid out?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, Al Arabiya: Theoretically, it is possible, only if you have the perfect alignment of all the major stars and the planets. And that's not going to happen.

The conditions are not ripe in Israel. They are not ripe in Palestine. The three leaders who are involved -- George Bush, Olmert and Abbas -- are either weak, objectively speaking, or perceived to be weak, even by their own people, and hence their unpopularity.

After Annapolis, which is really the triumph of the process, nothing happened at Annapolis other than, "We are going to launch or re-launch another time the process." This is what's taking place right now.

Even if, as David said, that the two leaders believe that everybody else believes in peace and all that, Olmert enjoys the support of his own people only in single digits. Mahmoud Abbas does not control Gaza, which is extremely important, a million-and-a-half people who are left alone.

Therefore, on the American side, the president of the United States, this president was never involved intellectually and emotionally in the Arab-Israeli conflict the way his father was, or definitely Bill Clinton, or going back to Jimmy Carter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he's involved now. Are you saying, even with this late involvement, you still don't think...

HISHAM MELHEM: Judy, remember that famous, colorful Texan slang phrase that President Bush used in Sharm el-Sheikh the first time he went there? "I'm going to ride herd."

Now, whether you use that and say, "I'm going to corral horses or ride horse and crack the whip to put in line some cattle," urging the Israelis repeatedly to stop the unauthorized settlements, not to expand settlements, after Annapolis, what did the Israelis do? Announced a new settlement or expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and Jabaya (ph), an area that they call, in an Orwellian fashion, Harhoma (ph).

I mean, this is what the Palestinians see.

And one word on Gaza. I mean, there is a breathtaking lack of imagination on the part of the Israelis, the Americans, and the Palestinians as to what to do with the million-and-a-half people who are left under the tender mercies of Hamas.

Addressing economic factors

David Makovsky
Project on the Middle East Peace Process
I think that, even if they can't solve this whole conflict, that at least they can move the ball economically and lead towards a provisional Palestinian state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any part of this, David, that you can see some possibility of movement?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think if you look at Olmert's speeches in Hebrew -- I've tracked about six of them in the last month or so -- they're breathtaking. No Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, has talked to his own people about the need for a new peace agreement with the Palestinians and why Israeli needs a Palestinian...

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he's going farther than his predecessors?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Much further than any Israeli leader has gone. He's gone I would say light years ahead of Rabin, who we now lionize -- correctly, by the way -- but he's gone much farther than Rabin. It just doesn't get played here because we're focused on Iraq and New Hampshire.

But he's done tremendous amounts in this regards. The problem is he's got a very fragile coalition.

And I would disagree with Hisham a little bit. He's not in the single digits any more. He's closer to about 40 percent, but he's still weak.

But that's why I emphasize the publics, because for these people to get over 50 percent and the like, they have to show to their own people, "Look, look what the other side did. Now it's our turn to do something."

So that's why I think U.S. efforts to synchronize public action on both sides could help empower these leaders. I don't want to say this is doomed to fail. I'm not sure. I think there's a chance.

But I would argue, if you look at this as a football field, if they move the ball from the goal line even to midfield, and they don't score a touchdown all the way, we're still better off than we are today, because then the next administration at least has a chance to take it the rest of the yards.

If we do nothing, the rejectionists are going to be ascendant. And I think Hisham would agree with me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying something could be accomplished, something could happen here?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think, from what I'm getting from the Palestinian side, at least, that's what they would like to do. The Palestinians are very much interested in improving the economic lives and the conditions for their own people, in the West Bank in particular, which requires the Israelis to remove checkpoints and to make their life less hellish than what it is today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying that could happen?

HISHAM MELHEM: That could happen, because they need to have infusion of funds and money from the international community, from the Arab states and all that.

At the same time, they don't believe, from what I'm getting, that there will be a peace treaty signed before the end of this year. But they would like to see maybe some sort of an interim arrangement, that the average Palestinians will see it as genuine peace process that is building results.

So that the people in Gaza will see it, will see the improvement of life, see that there is a political process, and there is another option than just to be under the yoke of Hamas. That's what they want, and I think they are being realistic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, partial progress, do you see it along the lines of what Hisham is spelling out?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, I mean, I think on economics -- look, you had this Paris conference that raised over $7 billion. You have Tony Blair now on the ground doing projects.

You need a lot of quick impact, things that the people could feel a difference. Oil is at $100 a barrel. The Arab states are swimming in oil. They could help their own people. This is supposed to be one of their top foreign policy priorities.

And Israel, Olmert said no more expropriation of land, and he's made other steps. I think that, even if they can't solve this whole conflict, that at least they can move the ball economically and lead towards a provisional Palestinian state.

I think we don't have a choice, because the alternative of doing nothing is the ascendance of Hamas. And, therefore, I hope the Bush administration, led by the president and Secretary of State Rice, won't just focus on visits, but what's going to happen between visits.

HISHAM MELHEM: Judith, we know that there are constituencies for peace in the Palestinian society and the Israeli society. The problem is that they are not taking steps to translate into reality.

Iran's role in the region

Hisham Melhem
Al Arabiya TV
The president should be extremely careful in how he mobilizes peace, mobilizes the Arabs in a coalition against Iran. It shouldn't be seen that way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of you mentioned Iraq. Clearly, this administration very focused on Iran, Iraq. How do these efforts to get the parties in the Middle East to reach an agreement fit into the bigger picture, the bigger problems the administration faces in the whole region, Hisham?

HISHAM MELHEM: There is no doubt that there is a growing concern in the Arab world -- and I would argue in Israel, of course, and David will tell you that -- the Arabs in the Gulf in particular feel that they are living in the shadow of an increasingly assertive, belligerent Iran.

They don't want necessarily to see an American-Israeli war -- an American-Israeli attack on Iran. They still believe that there are ways to increase the pressure on the Iranians to contain them.

And this is where we are right now. And that's why the president should be extremely careful on how to deal with Iran, in terms of mobilizing Arab support for his policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is that a positive or a negative force in getting these parties together, the Israelis and the Palestinians?

HISHAM MELHEM: If you want to call fear a positive element, not necessarily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An incentive?

HISHAM MELHEM: Maybe. Maybe it is an incentive, but up to a certain point. The president should be extremely careful in how he mobilizes peace, mobilizes the Arabs in a coalition against Iran. It shouldn't be seen that way. And the Saudi foreign minister yesterday, Saud Al-Faisal, made that very clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, how do you see, quickly, this fitting into the bigger...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I just came from an Arab country where the leadership was only talking, "Iran, Iran, Iran. We are afraid of Iran's growth."

They see this whole peace process as a way of trying to take a card out of the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad's, hands, that he has exploited this issue. And, therefore, they say, "Let's have an active process. Don't let the Iranians use this to get a bigger foothold in the Middle East."

By the help of their proxies in Gaza and Hezbollah and other places, they are making inroads. And their Islamic Jihad has fired off 1,200 rockets against Israeli towns, and that is an impact in Israel, because Israelis said, "Hey, if we didn't like the book in Gaza, why see the movie in the West Bank?"

JUDY WOODRUFF: So if they could make some progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians, they would see it as some kind of a bulwark?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: It would be a bulwark. And I would just add, with the president in Israel yesterday and today, Iran was a big subject with the National Intelligence Estimate, because the Israelis feel they're being abandoned as a result of...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The administration having -- the National Intelligence Estimate having said Iran has stopped its nuclear program...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: But Bush, I think, did damage control and tried to say that that's not where our policy is. And I think that's his main task, also, as he goes to Saudi Arabia in the coming days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much to think about, to consider here. We appreciate both of you being with us, David Makovsky, Hisham Melhem. Thank you very much.