'Palestine can't be Swiss cheese'

US president tells Palestinians he's confident viable, contiguous state will emerge.

bush in israel graphic  (photo credit: )
bush in israel graphic
(photo credit: )
Palestinian Authority officials here had mixed reactions to Thursday's talks with US President George W. Bush's in the Mukata presidential compound, with some expressing disappointment because they did not hear "anything new" and others describing the visit as significant and successful. Bush, who received a red-carpet welcome upon his arrival in the Mukata, held talks with the PA's President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. While the meeting was under way, Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, claimed responsibility for two mortar attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip. Although Bush was only a few meters away from Yasser Arafat's mausoleum, he did not stop at the site - much to the dismay of some PA leaders. But portraits of Arafat were visible almost everywhere in the Mukata. A source in Abbas's office said the portraits were intended to deliver a protest against Bush's refusal to pay respect to the former PA leader. The source said the PA did not hang US flags in the city to avoid "provoking" residents. The PA also expressed disappointment that Bush did not get a chance to see the security barrier during his visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. At the entrance to the church, a placard read: "Yasser Arafat's Vision: The Return of the Refugees, Independence and Jerusalem." Both Abbas and Fayad briefed Bush on the negotiations with Israel and the situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They also presented the US president with maps of settlements and IDF checkpoints in the West Bank, and urged him to pressure Israel to halt construction in the settlements, including in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, and to remove the checkpoints. At a joint press conference with Abbas, Bush said he believed the PA would sign an agreement with Israel to establish a Palestinian state before he left office in January 2009. "I am confident that with proper help, the state of Palestine will emerge," he declared. "I'm not a timetable person - actually, I am on a timetable - got 12 months. But I'm impressed by the president's [Abbas's] understanding about how a vision and a hopeful future will help clearly define the stakes among the Palestinian people." Bush said he was the only US president to articulate a two-state solution. But, he added, "Saying two states really doesn't have much bearing until borders are defined, right of return issues resolved, Jerusalem is understood, security measures - the common security measures will be in place. That's what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a clear, defined state around which people can rally." Bush, who spoke beneath a portrait of Arafat, also stressed the importance of establishing a contiguous Palestinian state. "Swiss cheese isn't going to work when it comes to the territory of a state," he said. "And I believe it's possible - not only possible, I believe it's going to happen - that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office." The US leader urged Israel to refrain from any acts that undermined Abbas's security forces. "There needs to be a fair amount of work to modernize the [Palestinian] security forces," he said. "My message to Israelis is that they ought to help, not hinder." In response to a question from Al-Jazeera correspondent Walid Omari as to why he wasn't simply asking Israel to accept United Nations resolutions relating to the Palestinian issue, Bush replied: "The UN deal didn't work in the past. And so now we're going to have an opportunity to redefine the future by having a state negotiated between an elected leader of the Palestinian people, as well as the prime minister of Israel." Bush condemned Hamas for bringing "misery" to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. "Gaza is a tough situation," he said. "I don't know whether you can solve it in a year, or not. Hamas, which I felt ran on a campaign of, 'We're going to improve your lives through better education and better health,' have delivered nothing but misery." Abbas said the PA would open talks with Israel "within days" on final-status issues, including the status of Jerusalem, borders and refugees. He expressed hope that a peace treaty would be reached in 2008. "We hope the talks [with Israel] would lead to ending the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state in accordance with President Bush's vision," he added. "Peace in the world starts from the Holy Land." Abbas said the Palestinians wanted to see an end to their suffering and plight of their prisoners [in Israeli jails]. "We want to live and develop our lives without checkpoints, settlements and separation fence," he said. "We want to see a different future, one where Israeli prisons are not full of thousands of prisoners, and ordinary people [are] queuing at checkpoints." PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, who attended the talks with Bush, said the visit was important and successful. "It's significant that President Bush for the first time used the term state of Palestine," he said. "Bush also outlined the tracks for the talks over the core issues, which include the future of Jerusalem, borders, refugees, water, settlements and prisoners." Erekat said Abbas made it clear during the meeting that the Gaza Strip would be part of any peace treaty with Israel. "There is no military solution for the [Hamas] coup in the Gaza Strip," he quoted Abbas as saying. "The solution lies in reaching a peace treaty that would be brought to the Palestinians for approval in a national referendum." Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, also hailed the visit as a "significant achievement," saying it was tantamount to recognition of the existence of a Palestinian entity. "We received important promises from Bush that he would continue his efforts to establish a Palestinian state while he's still in office." However, other PA officials sounded less optimistic. "We didn't hear anything new from Bush," remarked one. "We only heard general statements from him about the peace process and the Palestinian state." Another PA official said he was extremely disturbed by Bush's comments regarding the role of the UN. "Bush is actually telling us that we must forget about the UN resolutions pertaining to the Israeli-Arab conflict," he said. "This is bad news for the Palestinians and all Arabs." Unprecedented security measures forced many here to remain indoors, turning Ramallah into a ghost town. Some residents said the "curfew" was reminiscent of the pre-Oslo era when the IDF controlled the city. During the press conference, PA policemen used clubs and tear gas to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who took to the streets to protest against Bush's visit. The demonstrators shouted: "Bush is a murderer" and "Bush go home" as they tried to march toward downtown's Manara Square. The protest was organized by several Palestinian factions and representatives of civic institutions. Police also prevented the protesters from holding a press conference. Bashir Kheiry, a senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was severely beaten by the officers and admitted to a local hospital with a broken shoulder. A number of journalists who tried to cover the demonstration were also targeted by police.