US pushing hard for border agreement

No Bush-Olmert-Abbas meeting next week; Rice says sides need to "draw a map and get it done."

Rice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Rice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel and the Palestinians need to "draw a map and get it done," according to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, using language conveying a degree of impatience a week before President George W. Bush is scheduled to visit the region. Rice, en route to Washington from Israel on Monday, was asked by a reporter on her plane about Bush's April 2004 letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, which stated that "in light of new realties on the ground," a full withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines is "unrealistic." Any final-status agreement "will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities," the letter continues. Bush's letter was widely interpreted in Israel as a US acknowledgement that Israel could keep the larger settlement blocs under any future agreement. Rice said that "some of those realities have been recognized in every agreement that never quite made it as well. So this is nothing new, that those realities have been acknowledged." But, she added, Bush said this would all be subject to "mutual agreement, and I would remind that the president's letter talked about realities at that time. And there are realities for both sides, which is why they need to draw a map and get it done." Despite a US-administration push for some kind of joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration of progress during Bush's visit, perhaps an agreement on borders, the chances of that happening in a meeting between Bush, Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were reduced considerably Wednesday when the US announced that there was unlikely to be a trilateral meeting during Bush's visit. US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley put to rest weeks of speculation that the three leaders would meet, saying during a briefing in Washington that "this did not seem the time for a big high-level, three-way event with the president and the prime minister and President Abbas. It just doesn't feel right as the best way to advance the negotiations. And so, at this point, there [are] no plans for such a meeting." Hadley said the US president, accompanied by first lady Laura Bush, would arrive in Israel on Wednesday and meet separately with Olmert and President Shimon Peres. Bush, Hadley said, "will reaffirm his personal commitment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and encourage continuing efforts for a two-state solution, a democratic Israel and a democratic Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security." He also said the trip would "demonstrate the president's steadfast opposition to extremists and their state sponsors, Iran and Syria, who are expending enormous energy to thwart opportunities for security, freedom and peace in the region." Bush will also address the Knesset, tour Masada, meet with Quartet envoy Tony Blair, host a reception in honor of the state's 60th anniversary, and participate in a roundtable conversation with Israeli youth. Bush is scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia next Friday to mark the 75th anniversary of formal US-Saudi relations, and meet with Saudi King Abdullah at his private farm. On Saturday, Bush will travel to Sharm e-Sheikh and meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, followed by separate talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. On Sunday, he is scheduled to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah II, followed by separate bilateral meetings with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. He will also take part in the World Economic Forum in Sharm before departing for the US on May 18. In Jerusalem, Olmert is expected to update Bush on the situation with Syria, including the status of recent feelers going back and forth between Damascus and Jerusalem. Bush has not encouraged Israeli-Syrian talks, but his spokesmen have said repeatedly that he had also not told Olmert not to undertake them. Olmert, in an interview with the French weekly Paris Match published on Thursday, said he wanted to make peace with Syria, and that he was ready for it and "perfectly informed about what that means." At the same time, a Turkish initiative to hold a meeting between Israeli and Syrian officials fell through after Damascus leaked to the press that Olmert had agreed to relinquish all of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, the London-based pan-Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported. The paper said the meeting, which was scheduled for "somewhere in Istanbul," was supposed to produce a joint Israeli-Syrian-Turkish declaration. According to another report, the chances that such a meeting would be held in the near future were slim due to the US administration's stance on Damascus. The Egyptian government weekly Al-Ahram quoted a Syrian source as saying that talks between the two sides would only begin next year, after the new US president entered office. AP contributed to this report.