Mr. Bush Goes to Jerusalem - and Ramallah, and Bethlehem

Israelis and Palestinians don't agree on much - but both sides were equally skeptical that President George Bush's declaration during his visit to Ramallah today that he believes a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians will be signed before he leaves office in January 2009.

"I believe it's possible -- not only possible -- I believe it's going to happen, that there'll be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office. That's what I believe," the U.S. president said at his press conference, adding. "I am confident that with the proper help, the state of Palestine will emerge," Bush added.

The Palestinians weren't buying it - reporters covering Bush's visit to Ramallah used words like "gloomy" "indifferent" and "nervous" to describe the mood on the street. Palestinians were particularly unhappy with what they saw as a symbolic slap in the face in the refusal of the president to visit the grave of Yasser Arafat.

In some parts of Ramallah, the gloom turned to outright hostility, as demonstrators publicly denounced Bush, and Palestinian police forciblydisbanded their protests.

Indeed, Bush's optimism seemed somewhat misplaced, as rockets were fired into southern Israel even as he met with Palestinian leaders and Israel seemed to disregard the U.S. desire for all controversial construction to be frozen, and tens of thousands of Palestiniansvilified the U.S. leader in the Gaza Strip and vowed to fight on.

Those hoping for a miracle to push the peace process forward would agree that the next stop on Bush's tour was fortuitious. He continued from Ramallah to a stop in Bethlehem - if praying to move the peace process forward in the face of multiple obstacles is on his agenda, he couldn't have picked a better spot.

Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

It isn't very often that a U.S. president visits a foreign country, and the president of that nation begins his opening remarks not by talking about their bilateral relationship, but mentioning a third country - particularly an enemy.

But the specter of the Iranian threat weighs so heavily over President George Bush's current visit to Israel that Israeli President Shimon Peres did exactly that. Minutes after Bush stepped off Air Force One onto the carefully arranged red carpet, Peres turned to him and vowed that Israelis will "take your advice never to underestimate the Iranian threat. The Iranians should never underestimate our resolve for self-defense."

Bush arrived in Israel under sunny skies, defying fears of a rainy morning, and kept his initial public statements general, with no mention of specific common enemies or proposals for the peace process: only mentioning the shared fight against "terror."

The official purpose of the stop is to shore up an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that most Israelis view as too late - both in terms of Bush's presidency and influence as president, and in terms of the Hamas surge in power and its power grab in Gaza having deteriorated any hope of Mahmoud Abbas's ability to deliver on any agreement should it be reached.

Nobody really believes what Bush's statements expressing hope that a comprehensive peace treaty can be signed by Israel and the Palestinians before the end fo the year.

But without U.S. pressure, little can happen. If Bush hasn't applied that pressure in the past seven years in his presidency, it is unlikely that it will happen in his final year in office, particularly as missiles continue to be lobbed into southern Israel - several were fired on the very day of his visit - and terror attacks in the West Bank continue - often with perpetrators with ties to the Palestinian Authority and Fatah. He can hardly ask Israel to make peace under threat of terror while declaring that "the international community must confront those who would murder the innocent to achieve political objectives."

Still, like schoolchildren quickly finishing their homework before the teacher walks into the classroom, Olmert and Abbas, 48 hours before Bush's arrival, broke their latest deadlock and agreed to once again begin hashing out the core disputes defined at Annapolis. While neither side is rushing to make peace, at the same time, neither one wants to be blamed for a lack of progress.

With expectations of diplomatic progress so low, most of the local coverage has focused on the logistics of the Bush arrival along with the pomp and circumstance - the intensity of the security to protect the president, and naturally, how traffic is going to be severely disrupted by the visit.

Reports from Ramallah, where Bush is to meet with Abbas, observe that presidential security is so tight that the city looks as if it is occupied, not by Israel, but by the U.S. army.

The Israeli political reports also obsess over protocol -- which leaders are being granted the honor of spending time with Bush and who is not.

Much light has been made of the fact that while the U.S. president is scheduled to dine at the Prime Minister's Residence during the event, the wife of the Prime Minister, Aliza Olmert, will not be permitted to attend at the meal served in her own home. Protocol dictates that if Bush's wife, Laura, is not at the table, Mrs. Olmert may not be either.

"Where will she be?" asked one radio host. "Eating in the kitchen? Serving the meal? Out at a restaurant somewhere grabbing some falafel?"

At this event, the warm words directed to Bush upon his arrival in Israel are likely to become warmer. This is a thank-you tour. Both Peres and Olmert offered him thanks.

"Your policies have reflected a basic understanding of the challenges facing Israel in this troubled region and a solid commitment to our national security," Olmert said. "You're our strongest and most trusted ally."

Peres praised Bush's "exceptional courage" in the face of terror that won him "the love and admiration of all the citizens of Israel."

That is largely true, and for Bush, must feel quite refreshing considering the winter chill he left behind in Washington.