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Bush Brings Little More Than Gridlock to Jerusalem

For a couple days this past week, I sat at home — was confined to it, actually — waiting for Friday to arrive. Why? Because President Bush was visiting Jerusalem.

New Yorkers can surely understand what I’m talking about. When heads of state raid your city with their endless motorcades, appropriating the streets and tearing your eardrums with their wailing sirens, you develop a healthy dislike toward those bigshots who sit secluded behind their blackened windows, praying that they just go away and leave you alone.

There are, however, two main differences between a state visit to New York and one to Jerusalem. In New York, those alien visitors to your city come and go. Within minutes or, at worst, hours, the city is freed of their grip.

Not so in Jerusalem, which for nearly two full days this week was practically shut down. Since the president stayed at the King David Hotel, right in the heart of the city, a huge area around it — including my office at the adjacent Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center — was closed to traffic.

Many people were trapped at home. Some were even forced to do the one thing true Jerusalemites hate the most: schedule meetings in Tel Aviv.

The second difference between New York and Jerusalem is that when you watch a motorcade rolling down Fifth Avenue, you know that except for the short disruption of your immediate affairs, the moment it disappears from your horizon it’ll all be over. The guest has no other impact whatsoever on your life.

In Jerusalem, on the other hand, this week’s visitor came to speak to us about us, about our future.

I don’t know if the Jerusalem City Council arranged to have flag-waving kids deployed along the routes of the visit, but I doubt that my fellow Jerusalemites, out of their own free will, would have taken to the streets to hail the distinguished guest.

Thirty years ago, though, they did. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic and courageous trip to Jerusalem, he touched the hearts of us all. There was peace in the air; you could just feel it.

This time, Israelis are much more skeptical. The latest “Peace Index” poll conducted by Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann of Tel Aviv University found that while 78%-80% of Israelis are still interested in peace, they are very much split about the prospects for peace. Twenty-nine percent said that following the Annapolis summit they were more optimistic, 38% said they were more pessimistic, and 33% did not change their attitude, had not heard of the conference at all, or did not know.

Yaar and Hermann attribute the Israelis’ skepticism to the widespread belief that a peace agreement based on the “two states for two peoples” formula would not lead the Palestinians to end their conflict with Israel. In other words, the Israeli public does not think that the desirable solution is within reach; the prevailing view, say the Tel Aviv University professors, is that “without Hamas’s agreement, there is no chance of reaching a peace treaty, and that the sides will have difficulty overcoming their disagreements on the core issues.”

Being a sworn optimist, I always look carefully for some good news, and lo and behold, I found some: In the same poll, a majority of Israelis — albeit, at 55%, a small majority — says that the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas also wants peace. Regarding the desire for peace among the Palestinian people in general, “the opinions are divided,” Yaar and Hermann say, “with a very slight lead on the positive side: 48% think the Palestinians want peace, while 45% think they do not.”

This is what Israelis think about the Palestinians. And what are the Palestinians themselves saying?

Nabil Kukali, founder and director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, found in a public opinion poll conducted this past November that while 68% of the Palestinians were in favor of participating in the Annapolis summit, 68% opposed waiving the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes. As for their view of the Israelis, 54% of the Palestinians believed that Ehud Olmert and his government were not genuine in their quest for peace.

It is obvious, then, that the two peoples are not impressed with the post-Annapolis rhetoric, or with the promises emerging from the White House and the State Department that by the end of 2008 there will be a great leap forward toward peace. Both peoples are making a reality check, one that speaks louder than declarations: the Palestinians do not see any roadblocks and settlements being dismantled, while the Israelis see Qassam rockets hitting Sderot and a Palestinian police officer taking part in the slaying of Israelis.

Can President Bush, in the wake of his short visit here, do something dramatic to shake the two peoples out of their skepticism? Does he have in his toolkit a trick that has not yet been tried?

Bush can try to somewhat cater to Palestinian wishes by pressuring Israel to remove illegal outposts. But can he satisfy the Palestinians with what is dear to them most: the settlements and the issue of refugees?

After all, it was Bush himself who in 2004 promised then-prime minister Ariel Sharon that “new realities on the ground” — meaning the big settlements — would have to be taken into consideration during final status negotiations. And when it comes to the Palestinian refugees, Bush went a step further, saying that they would return not to Israel, but to a future Palestinian state.

As for the Israelis, they remember perfectly well that it was the same President Bush who pushed for Palestinian elections in 2006, which resulted in Hamas taking over Gaza. In the back of their minds, more than a few Israelis may be concerned that Bush’s further involvement in the peace process might bring Qassams ever closer to Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion Airport.

So with all due respect to Bush’s efforts on this visit, peace will have a chance only when the two peoples stop looking to the United States to do the job for them. Things will start moving seriously only when Israelis and Palestinians give up part of their big dreams and make painful compromises.

Having said all that, there is something Israelis and Palestinians share, and that is Middle Eastern hospitality. So in spite of the traffic jams and all the other hassles, Mr. President, you’re always welcome here in Jerusalem.

Uri Dromi, director general of Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in Jerusalem, was chief spokesman for the Israeli government under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

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