For a brief three days Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and many hopeful Palestinians believed that U.S. President George W. Bush had finally realized what was required for a lasting peace. Some may have even dared to believe that the United States was ready to take a “balanced” approach toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
During his 25 July 2003 meeting with Abbas, Bush stated that he and his administration would work to “seek solutions” to the concerns expressed by Abbas-at the forefront of which is the so-called “separation wall.” Abbas warned that if the Wall continues to be built on confiscated Palestinian land and to isolate Palestinian cities and villages, Palestinians and Israelis will find themselves at a situation where “the foundation of peace, a free Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel, is a factual impossibility.” Bush at the time seemed to agree, calling the Wall a “problem” and describing it as “snaking” through the West Bank.
The Wall, most of which is being built within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, will effectively serve as a means by which Israel will de facto annex approximately 55 percent of the West Bank. With a projected length of 650 kilometers, twice the size of the Green Line, the Wall is Israel’s final act in pre-empting an independent and viable Palestinian state. Abbas stressed that “nothing less than a full settlement freeze will do because nothing less than a full settlement freeze will work.” He warned that “for the sake of peace and for the sake of future Palestinian and Israeli generations, all settlement activities must be stopped now, and the Wall must come down.” This is the message that Abbas tried to deliver and for a few days he believed he had succeeded. During a joint press conference at the White House Rose Garden, Bush told reporters that he has constantly spoken out against settlements and promised that he would discuss the settlements and the Wall with the Israelis.
The Palestinians’ rude awakening came on 29 July 2003 when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon paid Bush a visit. Bush, who only three days earlier had acknowledged that the Wall made confidence-building efforts between Palestinians and Israelis difficult, backed off from open criticism of the Wall. Instead, Bush explained that he hoped that in the long-term a fence would be irrelevant.
What Bush does not understand is that if the United States continues to allow Israel to carry on with the “separation wall” and with the construction of settlements what will become irrelevant is the road map. Moreover, whatever trust and confidence Bush has gained among the Palestinian people will disappear. This overt backing of Israel and Sharon by Bush will discredit Abbas and strengthen opposition groups, the same groups that Bush and Sharon are demanding that Abbas dismantle.
Instead of assigning responsibility for the non-implementation of the U.S.-backed road map, Bush has backed away from a confrontation with an unyielding Sharon, choosing instead to force the Palestinians into a civil war. The fragile cease-fire which the PA reached with the militant groups after painstaking efforts hinges on the ability of Abbas and his government to deliver relief to the Palestinians from Israel’s military chokehold.
Palestinian resistance to the occupation will stop only when the occupation ends. Once the occupation is over, military acts against Israel by Hamas will have no backing among the Palestinian people.
If Bush is truly dedicated to peace in the Middle East and to the success of the road map, the United States must adopt an evenhanded approach to the crisis. This approach must be evident in words and action. The United States must reach the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people and give them tangible hope that freedom is near.