'Bush is leading a crusade against us'

Hamas slams US president's speech calling for int'l ME peace conference.

bush 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
"President Bush is leading a new crusade against the Palestinians," Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami el-Zuhri, said on Monday night, adding that the group would "neither recognize the occupation nor give up the armed struggle." Speaking in response to the US president's speech about peace prospects for the Middle East, Zuhri told Al Jazeera that Bush's declarations about the establishment of a Palestinian state were "empty declarations aimed at dividing the Palestinians." Bush sought to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with Monday's address at the White House calling for an international meeting in the fall and additional aid to the Palestinians. He also said Israel would need to take steps to help bolster Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, including ending settlement expansion and developing the Negev and Galilee, "not in continuing occupation of the West Bank."
  • Analysis: Building a bridge over troubled waters
  • Editorial: Break the code Efforts to strengthen the Palestinians, Bush indicated, were "designed to lay the foundation for a successful Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza," and could pave the way for "serious negotiations" toward such an end. The speech looked to give a boost to the "political horizon," or contours of a final-status agreement, the administration has long been discussing. Bush mentioned the need for a "secure" Israel and a "viable and contiguous" Palestinian state. Additionally, he said negotiations must "lead to a territorial settlement, with mutually agreed borders reflecting previous lines and current realities, and mutually agreed adjustments." The conference, to be hosted by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would include the Israelis, Palestinians and "their neighbors in the region," according to the president. A senior State Department official, in a briefing following the speech, would not specify where the meeting would be held or which countries were expected to take part, but did say that "robust consultations" were going on. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said that Israel hoped to see the involvement of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Morocco. But she played down the mandate of such a gathering, saying that Bush had not called it an international peace conference, but rather a regional "meeting" of participants who support the idea of a two-state solution. The purpose of the meeting, she said, was not to come up with a conclusive peace agreement, but rather to bring together those backing a two-state solution to lend support to the sides. Overall, Israel reacted very positively to Bush's speech, saying that the US president came out strongly against Hamas, and reaffirmed standing US policy in the region. "We see this as a positive speech that reaffirms the American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, including a strong stand against terror and the importance of building Palestinian national institutions," Eisin said. She added that Israel saw "eye-to-eye" with the US and the international community on the importance of new Quartet envoy Tony Blair helping to build Palestinian institutions that could contribute toward "moving forward to a viable independent Palestinian state." The US had been looking to build momentum earlier this year on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but suffered a setback when Hamas took over Gaza. The speech, initially planned to be delivered closer to the five-year anniversary of Bush's articulation of a two-state solution in June of 2002, was pushed back because of the Palestinian crisis. But the administration decided to move ahead with it now, partly because of the urgency of the Palestinian situation in the wake of Hamas's growing strength and to bolster the recently tapped Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in his new office. Fayyad, a Washington favorite, is seen as a moderate and Bush said he along with Abbas "are striving to build the institutions of a modern democracy." In his speech, Bush portrayed the situation among the Palestinians as a moment of struggle between moderates and extremists which fits into the larger battle America is engaged in the region. Bush announced that plans to give $59 million to fund security reform will be boosted to $80 million, and that upwards of $225 million will be available in loans to reinvigorate the Palestinian economy. The president also called for the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, in which US, European, Arab and international monetary organizations participate, to convene in order to bolster assistance. The State Department also indicated that with the US sending money to the Palestinians, other parties would increase their efforts. At the same time, Bush said it was up to the Palestinians to take action. "This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians," Bush said. "And now comes the moment of choice." He also stressed the US commitment to Israel. "They should be confident that the United States will never abandon its commitment to the security of Israel as a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people." But Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Middle East Policy, expressed concern that the upshot of Bush's policy would be increased squeezing of Israel. "In the process, Israel will be pressured to make more concessions, concessions when the situation is unclear," she said. She added that though the speech was aimed at bolstering Abbas, but that it wasn't clear he had overcome problems such as PA corruption and the lack of a centralized security force that have long plagued his leadership. "Will this speech change that?" she asked. "Not likely, but maybe a miracle will happen." Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations and is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said that Bush's speech was "too little, too late" when it came to making an impact on the Palestinian reality and helping Abbas. "To change the situation on the ground, you'd really need a much broader strategy sustained over an 18-month period," he said. Miller, who is writing a book on "The Much Too Promised Land," also questioned the decision to call a conference for the fall. Meetings of this sort are usually done in order to launch a process or conclude it, and the parties are at neither stage right now, he said. Ultimately, according to Miller, what matters is how the US acts, and whether those actions are part of a decision to prioritize the Palestinian issue over the year-and-a-half remainder of Bush's term and engage in active diplomacy. "The talking isn't as important as the doing," he said. "We have very little credibility on this issue. Words aren't enough any more." Herb Keinon contributed to this report.