On borders, Swiss cheese trumps a 4-year-old letter

Where does President Bush want to draw the line?

Bush 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bush 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
In our Oval Office interview on Monday, President Bush said he was anxious not to supply us with "a screaming headline" about the dimensions of a future Palestinian state, a headline, he said, such as "Bush says this is what the borders ought to look like." Rather, said the president, those dimensions of the new Palestine and the finalized Israel needed to be agreed by the two sides themselves. So, said Bush, the headlines "ought to be, 'Abbas said this is what the borders ought to look like,' or, 'Olmert said this is what the borders ought to look like.'" The president was speaking in response to a question I had asked him about whether he truly envisaged a future Israel as being larger than its pre-1967 contours. Ariel Sharon often asserted that the president had promised him American support for such an expanded Israel in a 2004 letter, which stated that "in light of new realties on the ground," a full withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines is "unrealistic." And Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, told this newspaper in a recent interview that Bush was uniquely supportive of Israel precisely because his vision of our future was based not on the 1967 borders but on "'67-plus." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, has been known to minimize the significance of this four-year-old letter. Just last week, for instance, she told reporters that the 2004 letter "talked about realities at that time. And there are realities for both sides..." Hardly a ringing endorsement of '67-plus. Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley has also given briefings to the effect that Israel has tried to overstate the importance of a rather vague letter, which was issued at a time when Sharon was seeking to bolster support for the pullout from Gaza. And in answering my question, Bush did not at first even realize that I was referring to the 2004 letter. Hadley, who was also in the Oval Office, had to prompt him. "Okay, the letters," the president then said, remembering. But while Bush may not be focused on a letter he wrote four years ago about borders, he is certainly focused on those borders themselves. Although he stressed that when he lands in Israel on Wednesday, he is coming to encourage rather than demand, it was his desire to offer presidential encouragement precisely on the border issue that he chose to stress in our interview. "What I'll be doing is encouraging people to see if they can reach agreement on what the borders of a state will look like, for example," he said, "because once you can define the borders of a state, then you can deal with the settlement issue in much more concrete terms..." Not only do settlements come after borders on the agenda, moreover. So does the "right of return." I asked the president whether he believed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was prepared to relinquish that demand for a mass Palestinian influx into Israel. And he phrased his response in the context of borders: When it comes to the right of return, he said, "The question is, how bad do people want to have a state defined?... Tough issues... It makes it an easier issue if there is a clearer, clearly defined state that's contiguous in territory, for someone on the Palestinian side to say, oh, okay." In other words, if Israel and the Palestinians could agree on the borders of a Palestinian state, in Bush's assessment, that might give the Palestinian leadership the push to take a viable position on the issue of the refugees. All of which seems to add up to a more gentle, presidential way of saying what Rice said much more bluntly last week: "They need to draw a map and get it done." And if Bush was rather vague on the ostensible commitments he'd made to Israel in a half-forgotten letter, he was strikingly specific about what the Palestinians had the right to expect on the border issue. "We... try to make sure that the Palestinians understand that we believe in the contiguous state," he said. "It can't look like Swiss cheese. How can you have a hopeful place if you're not really in charge of a contiguous territory?... It won't be a viable state." Bush took pains in the interview to assert that he wasn't chasing a Nobel Peace Prize and wasn't worrying about his legacy. But he also made crystal clear that he wants to see at least a framework agreement concluded before he leaves office. And the indications are that he believes this can best be achieved by focusing first on borders. Not from an automatic standpoint of US support for expanded Israeli sovereignty to include major settlement blocs, as Sharon and Olmert would have hoped. But apparently from a belief that the Palestinians must be assured full control of contiguous territory, because only if they are satisfied with the parameters of their state-in-waiting might they possibly be wooed toward compromise on the refugee issue.