News Analysis: Bush Mideast Call Too Little, Too Late

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – US President George W. Bush’s call for an international conference on stalled Middle East peace marks a new strategy giving priority to the borders of the future Palestinian state, while putting on the backburner the key issues of refugees and Jerusalem, analysts said.

"On the face of it, President Bush is now saying, in effect, that parties should focus on what is solvable, namely territory, while deferring the issues considered most difficult: (occupied East) Jerusalem and refugees," David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Reuters on Tuesday, July 17.

In a speech aimed at bolstering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and undercutting Hamas, Bush said Monday "serious negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state" can begin soon.

He added that these negotiations should lead to a deal on Palestinian borders, suggesting other final-status issues like Jerusalem and refugees wait for later.

The negotiations "must lead to a territorial settlement, with mutually agreed borders reflecting previous lines and current realities, and mutually agreed adjustments."

Bush has in the past repeatedly suggested that Israel could keep major settlements in the occupied West Bank in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

He had infuriated Arabs and Palestinians by arguing that refugees could not return to land lost in 1948 and then exchanged with former Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon letters cementing his position, in what has been dubbed as a "Bushfour"

Makovsky insisted that Bush’s new focus on the border issue marked a departure form the usual handling of the borders, refugees and Jerusalem as one package.

Not Serious

Israeli officials have further questioned the seriousness of Bush’s new peace drive.

"He did not set any timetable," one official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

He said Israel was rather counting on Bush insisting that Palestinians rein in "militants" before advancing to talks about borders.

Leading Palestinian and Israeli newspapers also poured cold water on Bush’s call.

"The call by Bush could or could not be a transformation, as we are used to hearing talk of initiatives, proposals of conferences that most of the time achieve nothing," wrote the main Palestinian daily Al-Quds.

"We have yet to see if this time is different or if it is a scenario that we have already seen."

Israeli dailies were even harsher.

"The old-new presidential vision which was outlined yesterday will end just like its predecessors," wrote Maariv.

"Forceful declarations, high hopes, a grandiose plan and in the end it all comes to nothing but shattered hopes and despair."

The top-selling Yediot Aharonot said a comparison of Bush’s speech and the first major one he gave on the conflict five years ago showed that "peace in the Middle East is like the horizon — the nearer you get, the further away it is."

Others cast Bush’s new peace push as too little, too late from a leader getting ready to leave after eight years in office.

Same Nos 

Israel repeated Tuesday its usual "nos."

"We have been very clear that we are not willing to discuss at this stage the three core issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem," Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told Reuters.

"Israel has openly stated that we’re willing to talk about issues of ‘political horizon’ and about how to achieve the vision of two states for two peoples."

Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Abbas, said the Palestinian leader was prepared to start negotiations immediately on all final-status issues.

Abbas delivered that message in person to Olmert when they met on Monday, officials said.

Israel’s successive leaders have agreed on "three nos" as the starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians.

No to Palestinians demands for Al-Quds as capital of their future state, no return to the 1967 borders and no to the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in today’s Israel.

(IslamOnline.net + News Agencies – July 18, 2007)

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