INSS Insight No. 42, January 16, 2008
During his visit to Israel this month, President George W. Bush laid out his updated approach to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. In a statement delivered at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Bush fleshed out his vision of “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security,” on the eve of negotiations over “core issues” between delegations of the two parties.
When I reviewed this speech I advised “Don’t worry, the peace process is dead” The obstacles were too great. Now they are bigger.
The declaration basically adheres to the lines demarcated by Bush in his “vision speech” of June 2002, but a closer look at the details reveals some development and changes in his positions in comparison with previous “vision” documents: the Aqaba Conference speech of June 2003, the letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of April 2004, and the Annapolis Conference speech on November 2007.
A review of these changes suggests that they reflect an American effort to present a more balanced position by opening up some distance from previous positions that were viewed by some as biased in favor of Israel, particularly by eliminating the expression “Jewish state,” the implied reference to settlement blocs and the reservations about settling Palestinian refugees in Israel (all of which appeared in the letter to Sharon), and also by defining the point of departure for negotiations as “the end of the occupation that began in 1967” rather than UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Nevertheless, Bush left considerable room for maneuver that will allow give-and-take between the two sides in discussions on the three core issues – border, refugees and Jerusalem.
The question of Israel’s character and identity came onto the political agenda following the breakdown of the peace process at end of President Bill Clinton’s term of office and Israel’s fears about Palestinian demands to implement the “right of return.” In his plan to end the conflict – the so-called “parameters” – Clinton spoke of “Palestine as the national home of the Palestinian people and the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.” During Bush’s presidency, Israel demanded American recognition as the “Jewish state.” The administration agreed and that position was first enunciated in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Louisville speech” in November 2001. President Bush himself declared America’s commitment to Israel as a Jewish state in Aqaba, in his letter to Sharon, and at Annapolis.
However, in his King David statement, Bush reverted to the older Clinton formula and spoke only of a “national home.” The American commitment to Israeli security was separated and pronounced in another context. That change apparently stems from the vigorous opposition of Palestinians and Arab states to recognition of a “Jewish state” after Israel raised the matter in the weeks leading up to the Annapolis Conference. On the eve of his departure to Annapolis, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “the point of departure for any negotiations with the Palestinians will be recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.” Olmert also said that the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and Salem Fayyad, “want to make peace with Israel as a Jewish state.” The Palestinian rejection of the concept of “Jewish state” seems to be grounded in two concerns: the implicit renunciation of the “right of return” and the future status of Israeli Arabs.
In his 2004 letter to Sharon, Bush spelled out more detailed principles for an “agreed, just, fair and realistic” resolution of the refugee problem, which, in his view, needed to found through the creation of a Palestinian state and “the settlement of refugees there, and not in Israel.” But in an interview to Israel’s Channel 2 Television before his departure to the region as well as in a press conference at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, Bush spoke of the “right of return” as one of the core issues. In so doing, he adopted Palestinian terminology for the refugee issue that raises strong objections in Israel. In the King David declaration, Bush contented himself with a more ambiguous formula: “We have to look forward to the creation of a Palestinian state and of new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue.”
In the King David statement, Bush repeated the position, first expounded in his 2004 letter to Sharon, according to which the border ought to be based on the 1949 Armistice Lines “with agreement modifications that will reflect the current realities.” However, he deleted the section in the letter that specifically referred to “existing Israeli population centers” as the embodiment of current realities, left that issue somewhat vague, and simply repeated the insistence that Israel needs to enjoy “recognized, secure and defensible” boundaries and the Palestinian state needs to be “viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent.”
Source of Authority
Both the Annapolis Declaration and the King David statement reflect an American effort to stay away from the “sacred” declarations, agreements and concepts of the past. These latest proclamations, for example, make no reference to Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 or to the Oslo Agreements, which all appeared in every previous political document (e.g., the Bush speech of 2002, the Roadmap, and the letter to Sharon). On the other hand, Bush did stipulate this time that “the point of departure for negotiations on a permanent status agreement is clear – ending the occupation that began in 1967.” In doing so, he went beyond previous references to “the end of occupation,” either as a step that will contribute to Israel’s future wellbeing (as in the 2002 speech) or as one of the objectives of the process (as in the Roadmap).
In the King David statement, Bush referred to Jerusalem for the first time in his presidency but refrained from presenting a clear position and simply acknowledged that the political and religious concerns of both sides will make the discussions very difficult. He probably did that to avoid a confrontation with American Jewish organizations that made their rejection of the division of Jerusalem their primary reason for opposing the Annapolis process. Unlike his predecessor, Bush therefore did not elaborate a detailed plan or even stipulate general principles for the resolution of the Jerusalem issue.