Substance, not smiles

January 07, 2008

Jerusalem is draping itself in the flags of the city, Israel and the United States in honor of President Bush's visit this week, perfect for the essential photo op. And that's all this trip sounds like it's shaping up to be since neither the president nor his advisers have identified any policy or message that Mr. Bush will relay to advance the commitments made at the Annapolis peace summit. And that's just unacceptable.

The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Ramallah leg of Mr. Bush's Middle East journey can't be simply a stopover before the president heads to Arab capitals to discuss economic progress, regional security and his concerns over Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas left Annapolis in late November agreeing to begin serious negotiations with the intent of signing a peace agreement at the end of 2008.

Since then, the two have met only once, in part because Palestinians understandably balked after it was announced that a controversial Jerusalem housing project on the border with the Palestinian city of Bethlehem would be expanded. Israel has yet to fulfill its previous commitment under the "road map" guidelines to halt all settlement expansion.

That's an issue Mr. Bush must forcefully push with Mr. Olmert, even though the president has basically conceded to the Israelis that some settlements built beyond the 1967 borders would remain a part of Israel. That acknowledgment made in 2004 begins to define the borders of a possible Palestinian state. If Mr. Bush believes that a deal can be reached by the end of this year, as he has said, settlement construction must stop.

Mr. Bush is not a negotiator; it's not his style, nor would it necessarily achieve his desired two-state solution. But he needs to do more than "encourage" the two sides. He has to be a facilitator or use the power of the United States to jump-start talks, scale hurdles and compel actions that will lead to a settlement. The two sides have yet to set up working groups, and the U.S. has yet to define how it would monitor the two sides' actions.

Since the Annapolis summit, Mr. Olmert has released several hundred Palestinian prisoners and tried to ease travel restrictions for Palestinians on the West Bank. But his government also has been defending itself from continued rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas. To expect Mr. Abbas to do what he can to deter terrorism is not an unreasonable expectation for partners in peace.

Mr. Bush is expected in Israel on Wednesday, and though it's barely after the first of the year, in terms of negotiating an end to this conflict, December isn't far off.

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