Bush Presses Israel in Apparent Bid to Maintain Anti-Iranian Front

By Ori Nir

Published September 20, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — In an apparent effort to bolster Arab and European support for anti-Iranian measures, the Bush administration is urging Jerusalem to take steps to ease tensions in the West Bank and Gaza and to generate progress toward possible negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israel, according to American, Israeli and European sources, has agreed to such an approach. In meetings last week with American officials in Washington, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that her country would begin to implement aspects of the long-stalled road map peace plan, even if the Palestinians fail immediately to implement the reciprocal steps required under the internationally backed agreement.

The issue was discussed in meetings that Livni held with President Bush and his chief foreign policy advisers — including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — last week in Washington and this week in New York. Bush, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, said that creating “a Palestinian state that has territorial integrity” is “one of the great objectives” of his presidency. He stopped short of announcing the intensification of American efforts to revive the peace process through mediation, but he did say that he had directed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “to lead a diplomatic effort to engage moderate leaders across the region” to help Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “in their efforts to come together to resolve their differences.”

Senior administration officials said that Bush’s comments, as well as the series of meetings that his secretary of state held in New York this week, are intended to produce progress on the peace process.

The sense of urgency to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts emerged as Bush and his chief foreign policy advisers headed to New York this week for the president’s annual address before the United Nations General Assembly. Behind this sense is the growing realization in Washington that in order for America to maintain a solid international coalition to fight terrorism and to confront Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, America and Israel must show progress toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The notion was articulated plainly in a September 15 speech by Philip Zelikow, special counselor to Secretary of State Rice, in Virginia at the annual conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Speaking before a large crowd of American officials, foreign diplomats, reporters and trustees of the prestigious pro-Israel think tank, Zelikow said that the Europeans and the moderate Arabs are America’s most important allies in confronting Iran and Islamist terrorism, “and some sense of progress and momentum on the Arab-Israeli dispute is the sine qua non for them to cooperate actively with the United States on lots of other things that we care about.

“We can rail against that belief; we can find it completely justifiable. It is a fact. That means an active policy on the Arab-Israeli dispute is an essential ingredient to forging a coalition that deals with the most dangerous problem.”

America’s European and Arab allies are not demanding that a “linkage” be created between cooperation on confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and progress on the peace process. “We are not saying that all problems in the Middle East would be resolved if we solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we are saying that no problem in the region could be resolved unless a solution is found to the issue of Israel-Palestine,” a senior European diplomat told the Forward.

The notion of linking the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions is causing concern among some pro-Israel activists in Washington. One such activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it “absurd” and said that such an approach would give Khaled Mashal, the militant director of Hamas’s political bureau in Damascus, “a veto-right on confronting Iran.”

Following Zelikow’s comments and similar remarks from another senior administration official that indicated such linkage, several pro-Israeli activists asked other senior administration officials to clarify the administration’s position. On Monday, Rice reportedly told Livni in New York that the United States does not see such a linkage between efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and progress on the Palestinian front.

Meanwhile, many senior Israelis are not voicing alarm over the idea of such a link. One Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, said there is no cause for alarm because the Israeli government is willing to generate progress with the Palestinians regardless of the confrontation with Iran. Ephraim Sneh, leader of the Labor faction in the Knesset, said that Israel “has its own reasons” to move toward negotiations with the Palestinians. He said he is “dubious,” however, about whether such progress would convince the international community to form a strong, unified front to block Iran from obtaining the atomic bomb.

Uzi Arad, who advised former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is still close to the head of the rightwing opposition Likud party, told the Forward that if Israelis agree — as they should — that all efforts ought to be devoted to stopping Iran’s nuclear quest, then “it would be wise to adopt a slightly more flexible policy toward the Palestinian issue.” He added that “there is much that could be done” to engage with the Palestinians, short of making significant concessions.

According to foreign diplomats, Israeli sources and several Washington insiders, administration officials agreed with Livni that Israel would start taking measures in the West Bank and Gaza to ease Palestinian freedom of movement and to help stimulate the stagnant local economy. These measures would be taken along the lines of the internationally sponsored road map agreement, sources said.

Although the plan calls for a reciprocal approach in which Israeli steps are to be matched with corresponding Palestinian ones, Livni reportedly agreed to start on the path of the road map regardless of Palestinian action. In several closed, off-the-record meetings that Livni had during her Washington visit, she indicated that Israel would take such measures to kick-start the plan.

On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the Israeli military to renew preparations to demolish Jewish structures built illegally in settlements in the West Bank, Ha’aretz stated. Peretz reportedly rejected recommendations from some senior officers to freeze the demolition efforts. Demolishing illegal Jewish constructions in West Bank settlements is one of the chief requirements of the first phase of the road map.

A senior European diplomat, speaking with the Forward last week on condition of anonymity, said that the European Union and the Bush administration see eye to eye on the urgent need to improve the economic situation on the ground in the Palestinian territories, particularly in Gaza. First and foremost, he said, is the need to immediately increase the flow of incoming and outgoing cargo at the Karni crossing point. According to a recent World Bank report, the average number of trucks leaving Gaza with export goods has fallen to less than 25 this summer in the past year from the already low baseline of 45 per day prior to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. In addition, the European diplomat said, Israel and Egypt are willing to do their share to increase the flow of people and goods through the Gaza-Egypt crossing in Rafah. Israel also has agreed to lift more of its restrictions on travel inside the West Bank.

The E.U. believes that a sense of political progress could further split the militant Islamist movement Hamas and encourage its political wing, which now dominates the Palestinian government, to moderate, the senior European diplomat said. Economic improvement, deeper Israeli and international political engagement with Abbas, and a reiteration that the international community would interact with a Palestinian government that renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel and accepts Israeli-Palestinian agreements all could push Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah of Hamas to fulfill these three international conditions, the European diplomat said.

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