bush olmert abbas wave.
(photo credit: AP)
On the eve of the anniversary of the unfulfilled 1947 United Nations vote to establish two states for two peoples in the Holy Land, US President George W. Bush formally relaunched Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to achieve a vision that has remained elusive for 60 years.
In an extremely brief ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, capping three days of intense diplomatic wrangling, Bush pledged to bring the full bearing of the United States to the peacemaking efforts.
"The US will be actively engaged in the process," Bush told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as they stood by his side following a three-way meeting in the Oval Office. "We will use our power to help you."
Such an emphatic declaration of American support has until recently been lacking in efforts to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians, and both sides said they welcomed the involvement as an important component to achieving peace.
Though the United States has stressed that it is the Israelis and Palestinians who must reach an agreement stemming from the process begun Tuesday at the Annapolis conference, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino noted that Bush has said that the US can be helpful and that "he's only a phone call away." She also said that, if pressed to take a direct role, Bush has expressed "a willingness to do so."
"Yesterday was an important day, and it was a hopeful beginning," Bush said in the crisp fall air at the Rose Garden. "No matter how important yesterday was, it's not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond."
In the last several months of discussions between the two sides, Palestinians and Israelis have moved a significant way towards each other in their willingness to discuss key issues, culminating in a last-minute agreement on a statement yesterday outlining their intention to relaunch negotiations. But the United States, too, has come a long way in reevaluating and intensifying its own efforts to push for peace between the two sides and, eventually, between Israel and the greater Arab world.
Bush stood close to the same ground that his predecessor, Bill Clinton, did when brokering the famous handshake between then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PA chairman Yasser Arafat to usher in the Oslo process in the 1990s. Abbas and Olmert did not shake hands at Wednesday's event, though members of their negotiating teams seemed in good spirits as they chatted and smiled while walking from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden.
The failure of that effort on the eve of Bush's ascension to office had kept the president at arm's length from efforts to mediate. But with the Israelis and Palestinians indicating they are willing to engage in serious, direct negotiations on all of the substantive issues that divide them, the US has worked with them on a framework to move them toward a resolution before Bush leaves office next year and has said it would referee the process of implementation.
The two sides are set to begin final-status negotiations on December 12, with work teams set up to deal with all of the final status issues. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listed those issues as borders, refugees, settlements, security, water and Jerusalem.
Before the trilateral meeting, Bush met with both Olmert and Abbas separately. At a briefing after the meeting with Abbas, Perino said the discussion hadn't addressed sensitive issues such as refugees, the nature of Israel as a Jewish state and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. She also said that Iran hadn't come up with Abbas, though the threat of the rising Persian power has loomed in the backdrop of the Annapolis meeting and served as an impetus for peace efforts to strengthen moderates.
But, Perino related, Bush did say that it would be important for each side to press ahead despite the obstacles. Perino said he told them, "These are difficult, emotional issues. It's going to be time-consuming as they work through them, and there could be sticking points."
In an interview with the Associated Press Tuesday night, Bush acknowledged that the risk of failure in the peace process threatened to spawn a generation of extremists, but said "it is worth it to try" anyway.
"I don't think it's a risk to try for peace," he said. "I think that's an obligation."
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