WASHINGTON — In advance of the latest Mideast summit, the Bush administration is giving stiff messages to both Israelis and Palestinians in the raging debate over borders and Jewish settlement expansion.
Administration officials have advised the Palestinian Authority against premature discussions of borders. They are also warning Israel not to determine future borders by unilaterally creating facts on the ground through West Bank settlement construction, especially along the corridor that connects the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem.
Messages to both sides were sent as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prepare for separate meetings with President Bush. Sharon will visit the president’s Texas ranch April 11.
Abbas, who was supposed to meet with Bush toward the end of this month, has delayed his visit because of the volatile internal security situation in the P.A. He will probably come to Washington in May, Palestinian sources said.
Both leaders are looking for a statement of American support to help them survive turbulent political situations at home. But in each case, the administration is reluctant to make any commitments.
“There is a message to both sides,” said Dennis Ross, former chief U.S. negotiator for the Israeli-Arab conflict, in an interview with the Forward. “To the Palestinians [the administration is] saying: Now is not the time for pushing on borders. To the Israelis: Now is not the time for building settlements.”
In the face of vehement right-wing attacks on Israel’s plan to pull out from Gaza in July, Sharon is seeking an American statement of support for Israeli construction in existing settlement blocs. As the rival militant group Hamas gains in the polls in advance of Palestinian parliamentary elections set for late July, Abbas is seeking reassurances that the White House will enforce an Israeli settlement freeze and still views the pre-1967 “Green Line” as the baseline for a future border.
In two lengthy meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week, Sharon’s chief political adviser, Dov Weisglass, failed to receive a Bush administration commitment to a statement of support for Israeli construction in so-called “settlement blocs,” large settlements adjacent to population centers inside Israel, which Israel expects to maintain when it signs a final peace accord with the Palestinians.
According to senior Israeli sources, Rice and Weisglass “agreed to disagree” on the issue, which, they said, will be extensively discussed in the April 11 meeting between Bush and Sharon.
On Tuesday, Bush said that he will press Sharon to fulfill the
U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which calls for “no expansion” of Jewish settlements.
“Our position is very clear, that the road map is important,” Bush reportedly said to members of the media. “And the road map calls for no expansion of the settlements.”
Voicing the argument that Sharon is expected to make when he meets with Bush, Israeli sources said, Weisglass told Rice that if the administration does agree with Israel that the “settlement blocs”” would remain in Israeli control in the future, then it is unreasonable for the administration to insist that construction in these settlements be frozen. According to Israeli sources, the administration prefers to avoid taking a clear position in the issue and is urging Israel to maintain some “constructive ambiguity” on construction in existing settlement blocs.
What the administration is being very clear about is its objection to Israeli construction in the three-mile corridor that connects the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, northeast of Jerusalem, to the Israeli capital. Israel’s government has recently stated its intention to construct 3,500 housing units in this area, implementing a plan known as E-1. This week the administration reiterated its strong objection to the plan, sources said. Israeli officials reacted with conflicting statements. Sharon reportedly told an Israeli parliamentary committee that he intends to implement the plan. But his minister of construction, Isaac Herzog, during a visit to Washington, reassured senior administration officials that there are no imminent intentions to implement the plan.
“In my ministry, this is all theoretical at this stage,” he told a crowd of reporters, diplomats and foreign policy experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Bush administration officials have recently told their Israeli counterparts that although the administration prefers to avoid a conflict with Sharon’s government over settlement construction — mainly in order not to jeopardize Sharon’s July pullout from Gaza — Israel should realize that pushing settlement construction could backfire by hastening negotiations on final status issues, which Israel is trying to avoid, sources said.
“If you are going to focus attention on settlements, then you should know that you may need to move quickly onto permanent status negotiations,” Ross said.
The administration’s message to the Palestinians this week was even more sobering. For the first time, an administration official said that as far as the president is concerned, the Palestinian state will be defined by its institutions, not by its borders.
National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley hammered home the message, speaking off the record Monday to a crowd of some 600 people at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual conference in Washington. According to people who attended the event, Hadley said: “What the president said in respect to a Palestinian state is that the true definition of a state is found in its institutions. It’s the institutions of a state — not its borders — that determines whether or not that state meets the aspirations of its people and can live in peace with its neighbors. That is the message that the president sent to the Palestinians.”
At the same time, according to people in attendance, Hadley said that putting the issues of land and borders on the table now would derail the Palestinians’ efforts to build democratic institutions
A European diplomat in Washington who called Hadley’s comments “disastrous” said that they serve as a de-facto green light for Israel annex de-facto Palestinian land in the West Bank through settlement expansion or by other means.
Israeli diplomats expressed satisfaction with Hadley’s remarks, pointing out that they correspond with the second phase of the internationally sponsored road map, which talks about a Palestinian state with provisional borders.