MARGARET WARNER: There have been fierce protests from the pro-settler right wing in Israel. But Prime Minister Sharon is pushing ahead with his plan to remove all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza this summer, plus four in the northern West Bank.
New Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas says he supports the move. But many Palestinians suspect the Israelis will use the Gaza pullout as cover to expand their settlements in the occupied West Bank. Those suspicions were inflamed two weeks ago, when Israel announced plans to expand a large West Bank settlement, Maale Adumim, just three miles East of Jerusalem; 3,500 housing units will be added where 30,000 Jewish settlers already live.
Palestinian officials angrily protested that the expansion would cut off their access to east Jerusalem and end hopes that it could become the capital of an eventual Palestinian state. Israel's announcement was swiftly criticized as well by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She told the Los Angeles Times the move was "at odds with American policy," and called for a "full stop" of the project.
So expectations were high about a possible confrontation today when Prime Minister Sharon met with President Bush at his Texas ranch in their first face-to-face discussion in months. And the press conference afterwards did focus heavily on the expansion of Maale Adumim.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I've been very clear about Israel has an obligation under the road map. That's no expansion of settlements. I look forward to continuing to work and dialogue with Israel on this subject.
ARIEL SHARON: It is the Israeli position that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel's hands under any future final status agreement.
MARGARET WARNER: President Bush agreed that some major West Bank population centers would likely remain under Israeli control as part of final status negotiations with the Palestinians.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But there is a road map, there is a process, and we've all agreed to it. And part of that process is no expansion of settlements.
MARGARET WARNER: But Sharon came back on the settlement in question.
ARIEL SHARON: Maale Adumim is one of the blocs of Jewish population, and our position is that this would be part of Israel. And of course we are very much interested that it will be a contiguity between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem. But I think altogether we are too early, because everything that happens there really altogether might take many years.
MARGARET WARNER: Sharon also said Israel won't talk about further West Bank withdrawals after the Gaza pullout until Palestinians do more to clamp down on terror.
ARIEL SHARON: Only after the Palestinians fulfill their obligations -- primarily a real fight against terrorism and the dismantling of its infrastructure -- can we proceed toward negotiations based on the road map.
REPORTER: Mr. President, do you support the prime minister's position, as he stated now, that after the disengagement, there will be no other political steps until a final and complete dismantling of terror organizations?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Basically, he's saying that, you know, until he sees more progress, he doesn't have confidence. And I suspect if we were to have a frank discussion about it, the Palestinians would say, "we don't have confidence in Israel."
So what's needed is confidence. And I'm convinced the place to earn to gain that confidence is to succeed in the Gaza. I just suspect that if there is success in the Gaza -- in other words, if there's a state that's emerging -- the prime minister will have a different attitude about whether or not it makes sense to continue the process. And so I want to focus the world's attention on getting it right in the Gaza.
MARGARET WARNER: And to help us understand, first of all, why this proposed expansion is so contentious and what really happened at today's meeting we turn to our team of Middle East analysts, David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. He's the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post and the diplomatic correspondent for Israel's leading newspaper, Ha'aretz. And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar; he also hosts a weekly program on the Arab satellite channel, al-Arabiya.
Welcome back gentlemen. All right, help decode this meeting for us. I'll start with you, David. What really happened on this expansion of the settlement? Did either man blink or did they just agree to disagree?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think they agreed to disagree. I think if you counted the number of times the president said during his press conference, support the Gaza disengagement plan, I think you see that focus today was more Gaza and less the West Bank.
MARGARET WARNER: How did you see it?
HISHAM MELHEM: I agree essentially. Sharon's plan is the focus of the president's attention who called on the rest of the world to focus on only on the Gaza implementation disengagement plan. I think Sharon gave the president what he wanted to hear in a sense saying we will dismantled some of these so-called unauthorized settlements.
MARGARET WARNER: Other settlements.
HISHAM MELHEM: But on the real issue of major settlements, like Maale Adumim and others, the president unfortunately is the one who did the blinking. We have seen a return -- it's a deja-vu all over again. Last year the president told Ariel Sharon that he agrees with him essentially that Israel should not withdraw back to 1949 armistice lines. And Sharon is using that to justify the expansion of Maale Adumim and other settlements.
MARGARET WARNER: So, David, how does this fit with Secretary Rice's reaction when this announcement was made? I mean, she was pretty blunt there with the LA Times.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think what you're seeing is a high-wire act by the administration trying to see if they can work both on the domestic base of Sharon at this critical moment and the domestic base of Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian leader. I just got back from Ramallah, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv. And it's clear that there's like different universes, parallel universes.
And each one is focused on their domestic situation. From where Sharon is standing he has 100,000 demonstrators in the street, the Shin Bet security service saying there are 200 people wanting to assassinate him. His party is completely divided believing he's utterly betrayed his principles by evicting eight thousand settlers from their home and there's talk of the Shin Bet, somebody's trying to blow up the Temple Mount -- all Jews -- the people who want to kill Sharon are Jews not Palestinians. So Sharon is focused domestically.
Mahmoud Abbas also new in the post Arafat era is trying to put together his new situation. He's encountering different -- difficulties from the old guard. The Bush administration is trying to split the difference essentially saying Gaza is the focus because if Gaza succeeds as you just heard the president in the set-up piece then many other things are possible. But you should know for the record our position is against this one zone.
MARGARET WARNER: So take us back to the administration. How do the Palestinians read the apparent difference between Secretary Rice and the president? Do they think Secretary Rice was just trying to send a nice signal to the Palestinians, or do they think that she really did feel that what Sharon did was a thumb in the eye to this new administration, to her as a new secretary of state and the fact that there's a new leadership in the Palestinians?
HISHAM MELHEM: There was some talk about contradictory signals from the secretary of state and the president, but I think the president set the record straight today. He said there was no such contradictions and that he's clear on new expansion of settlements. But he admitted that this issue is not settled. He admitted that it is not going to engage Sharon with a confrontation at this stage. That's why he talked about continuing dialogue with Israelis on this issue.
Now for the Palestinians the real issue is what will happen the day after the Gaza disengagement plan. Sharon is essentially saying by his words and his deeds nothing will happen. And the Palestinians who are saying we need contiguity; we need viability for the state to survive are listening to Sharon talking about contiguity between Israeli settlements, and Maale Adumim and others, with Jerusalem under Israeli control -
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
HISHAM MELHEM: -- so if Sharon abandoned the so-called dream of a greater Israel, certainly he did not abandon the dream of a greater Jerusalem.
MARGARET WARNER: So let's talk about Maale Adumim without getting too deep in the weeds here, but, David, are the Palestinians right that if this particular settlement, which is only three miles east of Jerusalem is permitted to expand in the way they say they're planning, that it in effect creates effect on the ground that precludes the Palestinians from ever joining with east Jerusalem as a potential capital for them, that it really is a deal-breaker in a final settlement?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I disagree with that. I mean if you look at Camp David in the summer of 2000, Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton and the Palestinians all said Maale Adumim would be Israeli. And that's what the president wrote in his letter of April 14 of last year that the population centers will be Israeli. Of course there will be swaps. I don't want to get into all the details.
The main point is this, that there needs to be a North-South, meaning Ramallah to Bethlehem transportation link so the West Bank is not severed north to south. The Israeli cabinet on Feb. 20 actually approved the road. And I think there should be some way to easily resolve this to make sure that there is the North-South link so that there's not a problem here.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that this Maale Adumim even though it was very offensive to the Palestinians for the Israelis to announce it right then that, in fact, both sides could be satisfied? It could be expanded and at the same time not preclude Palestinians' interests right in that area near east Jerusalem.
HISHAM MELHEM: If the Israelis are serious about the Palestinian state will be contiguous as Sharon claimed today because Sharon wanted to tell the president what the president would like to hear. If they are serious they would not build such huge settlements. They call them major population Jewish centers. That's a euphemism for settlements; if they expand Maale Adumim, this will cut off the West Bank north and south.
MARGARET WARNER: Because essentially expansion will go all the way from Maale Adumim to east Jerusalem.
HISHAM MELHEM: Exactly. So you would have east Jerusalem and Palestinian under Israeli control and Maale Adumim -- the biggest settlements around Jerusalem - then you have more than seventy, eighty thousand Israeli settlers behind the wall in the West Bank linked to each other by extensive network of roads.
This will make a mockery of viability and contiguity. And I think the president's words back in April 14 of last year are going to haunt him if he's really serious about a legacy in the Middle East as peacemakers between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Maale Adumim is a deal breaker.
MARGARET WARNER: Now we heard the president say when we got to the other issue which you all have discussed slightly already when Sharon said, and by the way after Gaza I'm not going to engage in any more talks until Mahmoud Abbas does more on terror. You heard the president say that's all pessimistic talk. Let's let Gaza happen and then it will somehow be a transforming event and everyone will feel differently. How realistic is that, David?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, the key here is Sharon is looking at the road map phase one and saying there's a parallelism, Israel freezes settlements when the Palestinians dismantled the infrastructure. You can't just ask Israel to do its part without asking the Palestinians to do their part - it's not an issue of sequence; it's just parallel.
Sharon is basically holding Bush to this. I would argue that the issue is not like the first term of the Bush administration where you had Yasser Arafat, and I think there was a general view you cannot engage - there was no one to talk to --
MARGARET WARNER: And then he was doing nothing about terror.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. And there's nothing to do. Here you do have a Palestinian interlocutor. And you can't equate progress meaning how much do you twist Israel's arm; the key is an American administration that engages on recreating a dialogue with Abbas and Sharon to solve a lot of the remaining issues on the table.
MARGARET WARNER: And does Israel, does Sharon contend that in fact Abbas has done quite a bit on terror though not as much as they would like?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: He clearly claims on a declaratory level this is no Yasser Arafat. He says violence is certainly politically counterproductive to our political aspirations as opposed to Arafat who exhorted people to blow people up. So on a declaratory level people say this is no Arafat. But when you get to the operational level, there everything breaks down.
Abbas is basing his strategy on the idea that basically you could co-op Hamas; you could bring them into the fold and turn them into a political system. The Israelis are very skeptical that that approach will pay off in the short term and we'll see a dividend in 15 years and in the meantime a lot of people will be dead. And therefore they want to see a more tougher approach.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me take you back to the question before last that I asked David. How realistic do you think it is that if the Gaza pullout proceeds, Sharon pulls it off, Gaza in fact becomes a democratic viable -- it's not a state but it's a sub state, the president succeeds in getting the Europeans and other Arab states to come and help -- that that will be a transforming event that in fact will make the final settlement easier?
HISHAM MELHEM: Gaza itself is not the panacea. And Gaza won't be turned into the Dutchy of Gaza. This is one of the most miserable places in the world -- on the whole planet. That's how the Palestinians....
MARGARET WARNER: I didn't which is why it needs big-time economic aid.
HISHAM MELHEM: Exactly. You won't turn Gaza into Dubai, as some people say, under occupation when it is isolated like that when there is no hope on the other hand with the West Bank. And that's why the Palestinians are asking what's going to happen after. And if the Israelis continue with this settlement activities, they will be no viable state either in Gaza nor in the West Bank.
Mahmoud Abbas is being asked to dismantle Hamas and the others. He does not have the security forces that were decimated by the Israelis in the last three, four years. Ariel Sharon is complaining and is claiming that Israel is on the verge of a civil war. And he has all the apparatus of the state to control a few thousand extremist Israelis. And Mahmoud Abbas is being asked to deliver on this major issue at the time when even the Americans who sent Gen. Bill Wards to help the Palestinians to coordinate and to unify the security forces, Mahmoud Abbas did what can be possible at this stage, what is possible at this stage, which is to get a commitment from these people to stop attacking Israel and they did.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that this announcement really gave ammunition to the critics of Abbas within the Palestinian community -
HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: -- who are saying, look, this is all a sham; the Gaza pullout is just a smoke screen.
HISHAM MELHEM: My fear is that in the next parliamentary elections in July, the Palestinian parliamentary elections Hamas and the Jihad and other Islamists, extremist organizations are likely to win at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas. And then President Bush will pay for it. The Palestinians will pay for it. The Israelis will pay for it.
MARGARET WARNER: And, very briefly, David, did Sharon really for domestic reasons absolutely have to make this announcement? Are you saying that he could not have controlled the extremists on the right unhappiness with the pullout without doing this?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I don't know if this was the only thing. But since the land has been the defining issue of Israeli politics since 1967 to put this in American terms it would be if a Republican president outflanked the Democrats from the left in wanting to raise taxes higher and faster and being more pro-choice than the Democrats. That's how Sharon sees it. Once people thought I wanted 100 percent of the West Bank; I'm now down to 8 percent. And now that 8 percent is seen as obstructionist; then I can't be to the left of the Ted Kennedy of Israel.
MARGARET WARNER: We're going to have to leave that metaphor there. Thank you both.