Bush Vague on Support for Settlement Blocs

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. President George Bush held a half-hour press conference following their Tuesday meeting. Bush praised Olmert's "bold ideas" but said their time has not come.

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Hillel Fendel, | updated: 10:07

Both Bush and Olmert emphasized the importance of the Road Map plan as the basis for peace in the Middle East. This plan has never yet been amended according to Israel's demands, and the 14 changes and additions demanded by Israel's Cabinet in May 2003 and which Sharon called "Israel's red lines" have never been addressed.

At one point, Mr. Bush was asked: "The Prime Minister just said that the settlement blocks in the major population centers will be part of Israel, annexed to Israel in the future. Do you support that? Would the United States sanction that?"

Bush responded:
"My answer to your question is, refer to my April 14th, 2004 letter. I believed it when I wrote it, and I still believe it." (Laughter.)

The letter in question stated, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949..." It did not mention then-PM Sharon's request for recognition for six settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion, but rather implied that Israel's retention of certain communities must be negotiated in the final-status agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Bush and Olmert and their respective delegations first met together, followed by the press conference. Afterwards, the two leaders met privately. Excerpts from the press conference:

...We reaffirmed the deep and abiding ties between Israel and the United States... In 2002, I outlined my vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. Prime Minister Olmert told me that he and his government share this vision...

I believe, and Prime Minister Olmert agrees, that a negotiated final status agreement best serves both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the cause of peace. Palestinian Authority President Abbas favors and speaks out for peace and negotiations. Yet, the Hamas-led Palestinian government does not.

Hamas needs to make a strategic choice for peace. The United States and the international community have made clear that Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, must abandon terror, and must accept all previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. No country can be expected to make peace with those who deny its right to exist and who use terror to attack its population.

Today, Prime Minister Olmert shared with me some of his ideas -- I would call them bold ideas. These ideas could lead to a two-state solution if a pathway to progress on the Road Map is not open in the period ahead. His ideas include the removal of most Israeli settlements, except for the major Israeli population centers in the West Bank. This idea would follow Prime Minister Sharon's decision to remove all settlements in Gaza and several in the West Bank.

I look forward to learning more about the Prime Minister's ideas. While any final status agreement will be only achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes, and no party should prejudice the outcome of negotiations on a final status agreement, the Prime Minister's ideas could be an important step toward the peace we both support. I'm encouraged by his constructive efforts to find ways to move the peace process forward.

Thank you, Mr. President... The vision which you outlined in your historic speech of June 2002, of two democratic states living side-by-side in peace and security, is the basis of any progress towards a solution in this region. Your unreserved support of the disengagement plan in your letter of April 14, 2004, to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- and I join you in praying for his recovery -- were the basis for the success of its implementation...

I intend to exhaust every possibility to promote peace with the Palestinians, according to the Road Map, and I extend my hand in peace to Mahmoud Abbas, the elected President of the Palestinian Authority. I hope he will take the necessary steps which he committed to in order to move forward.

Unfortunately, the rise of Hamas, a terrorist organization which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, and regards terrorism as a legitimate tool, severely undermines the possibility of promoting a genuine peace process. As you stated, Mr. President, the Palestinian Authority headed by Hamas government must abandon the path of terrorism, dismantle the terror infrastructure, honor agreements and recognize Israel's right to exist. By doing so they will find us a willing partner in peace. However, we will not enter into any kind of partnership with a party which refuses to recognize our right to live in peace and security.

Despite our sincere desire for negotiations, we cannot wait indefinitely for the Palestinians to change. We cannot be held hostage by a terrorist entity which refuses to change or to promote dialogue. If we come to the conclusion that no progress is possible, we will be compelled to try a different route.

I presented to the President ideas which I believe could help advance his vision and prevent a political stalemate. According to these ideas, we will remove most of the settlements which are not part of the major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria. The settlements within the population centers would remain under Israeli control and become part of the state of Israel, as part of the final status agreement. This process of free alignment would reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, ensure territorial contiguity for the Palestinians, and guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state with the borders it desires.

The implementation of these ideas would only be possible with the comprehensive support of the United States and the international community. I anticipate working with you to explore ways to advance this.

---answers to questions ---

...Our preferred option, of course, is there to be a negotiated settlement. On the other hand, as the Prime Minister said, if he's unable to find a partner in peace, if nothing can go forward, he is willing to think about ways to advance the process forward. And in order to solve this problem, there needs to be willingness to take the lead, and creativity, and the desire to follow through on the vision. The most important aspect about peace is to have a vision for peace. And I appreciate the Prime Minister's vision of two states, side-by-side -- two democratic states side-by-side in peace. That's possible.

You said you wanted to hear more. Is there anything that worries you about this plan?

No, the only thing that worries me about the plan is that Hamas has said they want to destroy Israel. And the reason that worries me is, how can you have two states, side-by-side in peace, if one of the partners does not recognize the other state's right to exist? ...And so we spent time talking about Hamas, and I assured the Prime Minister that our position is steady and strong; that Hamas must change.

Now, we care about the Palestinian people -- and I say, we, both of us -- he [Olmert] can speak for himself on this issue -- but we are trying to set up a mechanism that supports the Palestinian people...

...The [Israeli] government, Sunday, decided to spend 50 million shekels buying medical equipment -- 50 million shekels, about $11 million -- for the time being, to buy medical equipment and drugs needed for the hospitals in Gaza. And as I said during the Cabinet meeting, we will spend any amount of money needed in order to save lives of innocent Palestinians suffering from the indifference of their government. We will not hesitate to do it. We will use the revenues that we have collected, and more if necessary... This is a humanitarian commitment. We are absolutely committed to help innocent people that suffer from the brutality and the intransigence of their own government, and we will continue to do it at all times.

---Following Bush's remarks about the April 14th letter, Olmert said:
First of all, I want to emphasize again... that we will make a genuine effort to negotiate with the Palestinian side on the basis of the Road Map, which is the framework for future negotiations towards, hopefully, a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians... I will certainly meet with the elected President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. We haven't yet decided about the timing. It will be in the near future. And I will do everything that I can in order to help create the necessary circumstances for such negotiations to take place, providing, of course, that the Palestinian partner will have to not just to make a public commitment, but to be able to deliver on the basic requirements of the Road Map and the Quartet decisions, namely to recognize the state of Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish state, to unarm the terrorist organizations, and to implement all the obligations of the agreement signed between the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

...So we are anxious to have negotiations. And we will look and find every possible avenue to help establish a process of negotiations on the basis of these conditions. However, as I said, we will not wait indefinitely. If we will reach the conclusion that in spite of all these efforts, it is impossible to implement the principles of the road map through a negotiating process, we'll look for other ways to implement these principles, and to ultimately create a situation where there are secured borders for the state of Israel, with the population centers in the territories as part of a state of Israel, and with a contiguous territory that will allow the Palestinians to establish their own Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. And hopefully, this is something that will happen within the next three to four years.