The Middle East is in for a big surprise.
Belying the outward impression of steering clear of involvement in the Israel-Palestinian conflict as long as Palestinian terror persists, President George W. Bush is quietly planning dramatic moves – revealed here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources.
His intentions have surfaced in fragments through telephone calls, messages by envoys and in off-the-record briefings to various forums over the past two weeks.
Through these channels, the Bush administration has signaled Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian presidential frontrunner Mahmoud Abbas, that he has decided to draw on the Afghan and Iraq models for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement formula.
This entails some significant reversals which leave at least one of the four far from delighted.
One essential element of this strategy is the pursuit of diplomacy up until a final settlement without waiting for the eradication of Palestinian terrorism.
A second is sweeping change of current territorial divisions – and longstanding perceptions.
The Bush administration goal common to Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestinian regions is the establishment of stable and democratic governments – even before the winding down of terrorism.
An Israeli-Palestinian settlement has become a priority for the sake of its potentially powerful impact in the West, on the Muslim world and on America’s standing in the Middle East. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report exclusively that Bush is resolved to be the first American president since Israel’s establishment 56 years ago to come to grips with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by decisively addressing its core problems.
As seen from the White House, it all comes down to territory.
(See attached DEBKA Special Map)
Crumbs for Israel
Having determined where he stands on Israel’s final borders and the frontiers of the projected Palestinian state, Bush has therefore come down firmly on the Palestinian side. In a series of messages to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, he stipulated that all lands east of the as-yet unfinished Israel-West Bank security barrier will be lost to Israel in a final settlement. Save for minor territorial adjustments, the US president sees the entire West Bank being incorporated in a future Palestinian state, leaving Israel with no more than five or six percent of the total land area of Judea and Samaria.
The decision reached the Israeli government through various channels.
Elliot Abrams, the president’s top strategist on the Middle East conflict and a senior director at the National Security Council, shocked a closed meeting of American Jewish leaders in Washington on November 30 when he said that the Jewish settlements outside the barrier will have to dismantled in the end.
Abrams did not clarify whether he was referring to Jewish settlements currently on the other side of the defense barrier, or those which end up on the eastern side after the project’s completion.
The devil is in the details:
Around 129 settlements with a total population of about 100,000 will remain outside the fence after it is fully constructed.
About 130 settlements, including major towns like Ariel in the central West Bank (population 18,000), Maale Adumim southeast of Jerusalem (population 30,000), Efrat (population 7,500) and Kiryat Arba (population 8,000) adjacent to Hebron, are at present on the eastern side of the barrier, whether in places not yet reached by the fence or spots where construction has been interrupted by litigation or other causes.
No mention has been so far of the major residential blocs in the West Bank inhabited by tens of thousands of Israelis or the districts added to Jerusalem after 1967.
But a rough assessment indicates that a total of more than 100,000 settlers, or 40 percent of the 250,000 Israelis living in the West Bank, will be evacuated under the US plan – a prospect that dwarfs Sharon’s disengagement scheme for pulling 8,000 Jews out of the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
Abrams was a bit clearer the next time he expressed himself on the issue at a closed meeting of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York on Monday, December 20.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources who interviewed its participants, the White House official said he stood by his previous assertion that all Jewish locations to the east of the defense barrier will have to be dismantled. He added that their number will probably be around 70, which is much higher than the current popular estimate, because the Bush administration continues to stand opposed to drawing the security fence around settlement blocs – especially those in the central West Bank, the Lod-Modiin area east of Tel Aviv and Gush Etzion. The last bloc is the largest group of settlements southeast of Jerusalem and an important corridor linking the Gaza Strip, West Bank and southern Israel.
A Bush about-face is denied
In short, the US government is challenging Sharon’s much-trumpeted claim of a Bush concession at their April 14 White House meeting: in return for Israel’s planned Gaza pullout next year, the prime minister reported Bush had agreed Israel would retain control of the large West Bank settlement blocs under a final-status peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Asked about this seeming about-face, Abrams responded that Bush had warned Sharon at the time that any understandings they reached would be governed by three fundamental provisos. Those provisos were spelled out in their White House statements and in their exchange of letters.
1. The United States will not prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations and matters for the parties. But the realities on the ground and in the region have changed greatly over the last several decades and any final settlement must take into account those realities and be agreeable to all parties.
With all respect to Sharon, Abrams said, the prime minister should have paid more attention to the detailed phrasing, i.e. that any permanent deal must be acceptable to both sides. Bush, he added, believes his formula fits that definition.
2. As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
3. In the light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949… It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.
According to Abrams, mutuality is the key, meaning that Abbas, Mubarak, Saudi crown prince Abdullah and Jordanian King Abdullah must also sign on to the deal.
As far as Abrams and the White House are concerned, the US position couldn’t be any clearer and anyone saying otherwise is suffering from tunnel vision.
A Washington dressing-down for Abbas
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington, immediately after winning re-election on November 2, Bush informed Abrams he was appointing him US ambassador to Israel. The appointment would be announced, he said, after Sharon finished putting together his new government coalition and the January 9 Palestinian presidential ballot was out of the way.
The President informed the ambassador-designate that his job would be to carry forward the new American policy on Israel and the Palestinians.
Our sources report that shortly afterwards, the White House notified the incumbent ambassador, Daniel Kurtzer, that Abrams would take over.
Abrams and the designated head of the National Security Council, Stephen Hadley, have meanwhile been on the phone to Abbas. He was reprimanded for pushing for final-status negotiations with Israel to start immediately while ignoring Sharon’s disengagement plan and Palestinian obligations under the Middle East roadmap to peace. He was also put down for demanding that he and the Bush administration come to an understanding on a formula for presenting to Israel at the final-status talks.
Washington cautioned the Palestinian leader that this short cut was “a recipe for failure”. In any case, Abbas was putting the cart before the horse, demanding negotiations before his election. He was therefore advised by the White House officials to line up behind Sharon’s Gaza pullout scheme, discuss coordinating the project between the Palestinians and Israel and try and make it attractive to the Palestinians.
The Palestinian candidate was given an incentive for being accommodating. World Bank chief James Wolfensohn arrived in Jerusalem and Ramallah this week with a pledge in his pocket of an immediate $125 million cash infusion to tide over the Palestinian Authority until the election. On the US government’s behalf, Wolfensohn promised Abbas more of the same if he was cooperative.
Middle East roadmap clock starts ticking next month
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle Eastern sources, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s Mubarak also received US messages defining their respective roles in future Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Washington dismissed as unacceptable Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman‘s plan for Egypt to become the main overseer of security in the West Bank as well as in the Gaza Strip. There were no American objections to Egypt taking charge in Gaza, but Jordan had been cast as the senior manager of security in the West Bank.
“Do not act unilaterally in the West Bank,” one US message said, informing Egypt it was expected to synchronize its actions not only with Israel, as it has hitherto, but with Jordan as well.
In another message, setting out the diplomatic framework for the Israeli-Palestinian track, the Bush administration notified King Abdullah, Sharon, Mubarak and Abbas that the day after the January 2005 presidential inauguration, “the roadmap’s clock would start ticking” and the countdown begin for its implementation.
Sharon’s disengagement plan was termed the preliminary to putting the broad peace blueprint into motion.
The message did not refer to the roadmap’s original timetable for a full Israeli withdrawal and establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005. Signaling a schedule change, Bush recently said he hoped a Palestinian state would be created in 2008, but our sources note the president this week also cited 2005 as a year that could bring Israeli-Palestinian peace.