Coming Up Empty

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 11, 2008; 12:46 PM

So what's President Bush got to show for his three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank? Not much more than a bunch of pretty pictures for his scrapbook.

James Gerstenzang and Richard Boudreaux write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush completed two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Thursday without a firm public commitment from Israel to halt expansion of West Bank settlements or give the Palestinians a bigger role in policing the territory.

"Nor did the president make progress on a key Israeli concern that has stood in the way of peace talks for years: a halt in rocket attacks on southern Israel by Palestinian militants based in the Gaza Strip."

Richard Wolf writes in USA Today: "Though his language was strong and his mood upbeat, Bush prepared to leave Israel today without any specific progress on the peace talks he jump-started six weeks ago in Annapolis, Md. . . .

"Diana Buttu, a former spokeswoman and negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Bush's visit produced more talk than action. 'The real question is, what is he going to be doing?' she said. 'It doesn't seem like he's doing more than making speeches.'"

Tabassum Zakaria and Matt Spetalnick write for Reuters that Bush departs with "no major breakthroughs for his efforts.

"While [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas and [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert praised Bush's peace bid, neither offered significant concessions to the U.S. leader. . . .

"Writing in the Israeli Maariv newspaper, columnist Ben Caspit described Bush's visit as 'cordial and ceremonial . . . with a lot of high-sounding talk and very little action'."

Rebecca Harrison writes for Reuters: "After boldly forecasting an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty this year, George W. Bush ended a visit to the Holy Land on Friday at the site where Jesus is said to have declared: 'Blessed are the peacemakers'.

"Skeptics say little short of divine intervention will turn such hopes expressed by Bush, a devout Christian, into reality in the twilight of a presidency that will end next January. . . .

"[N]egotiators face mammoth obstacles: both Olmert and Abbas are politically weak, violence rages almost daily in a Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas Islamists hostile to Abbas, and Bush's reputation in the Middle East is burdened by the war in Iraq.

"Critics note Bush has invested nowhere near the same amount of personal time and effort as his predecessor Bill Clinton, arguing he lacks the will and understanding to broker a deal that has eluded generations of American and other diplomats.

"'The main problem here is that Bush is not prepared to invest American prestige in anything substantive,' said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher. 'He believes in his mantra of freedom, liberty and democracy sincerely but it won't work in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.'

"Weary of empty promises, Palestinians were deeply skeptical about the visit, expecting little from a man many view as the best friend Israel has had in the White House."

But at least no harm, no foul? Not necessarily. Harrison notes: "Some analysts said Bush risked wrecking the process and unleashing violence by promising too much too soon, and would do better to settle for laying the groundwork for his successor.

"'Over-reaching won't help,' said [veteran U.S. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller]. 'My advice to him is forget the peace treaty and get busy.'"

Israeli Snub

Reuters also reports that while Bush said there would be a "signed peace treaty" within the year, his Israeli hosts are already starting to backpedal: "Pressed repeatedly on whether Israel expects to sign a final 'peace treaty' by the time Bush steps down next January, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman told a news conference that Israel hoped for a 'historic agreement' in 2008 that would 'outline the framework' of a future Palestinian state. . . .

"Asked whether Olmert was ready to negotiate a full 'peace treaty' this year, rather than an interim 'framework agreement', [Spokesman Mark] Regev said: 'We believe it's possible to achieve by the end of 2008 a historic agreement.'

"Asked if that meant a final treaty, he said: 'I hope we will have a historic agreement that . . . outlines the framework, the structure, the vision for a future Palestinian state.'"

The Arab Audience

Bush is now in Kuwait, the first of several Arab countries he will visit before returning home.

Farnaz Fassihi writes for the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "As President Bush tours the Middle East on his first official visit, he will encounter an Arab public deeply critical of his policies in the region and skeptical that the U.S. means what it says.

"Almost everyone here believes that no other American president has had such a big impact on the region's political and social landscape, but critics say the change hasn't produced improvements.

"'Democracy in the Middle East is now part of history. Nobody believes Bush any more. He has turned the Middle East into a big mess, and you can't bring democracy and change with instability,' said Sateh Nour Eddine, managing editor and columnist at Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper, which is aligned with the U.S.-backed government here.

"Mr. Bush began his presidency with lofty goals for this region: Iraq would serve as a model for democracy, Iran would be tamed, and a Palestinian state would be created to pave the way for peace. But in his last year in office, Iraq remains unstable and chaotic; Iran has emerged as a regional superpower, and peace between Israel and Palestine is elusive. . . .

"'A popular proverb in Iran says that 'they wanted to fix a person's eyebrow but instead they made him blind.' In our view, this summarizes Bush's policies in the Middle East,' said Ali Reza Jalaeepour, a reformist political analyst in Tehran."

Bush's Outline

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "President Bush outlined Thursday in the clearest terms so far the shape of a two-state peace treaty he is hoping to broker between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of his term.

"He called for redrawing borders and compensating Palestinians and their descendants for homes they left in what is now Israel. . . .

"Mr. Bush did not offer specific detailed prescriptions for the core issues he addressed: where to draw new borders, how many Israeli settlements in the West Bank will have to be uprooted in a final deal or how to compensate a Palestinian diaspora numbering in the millions now for homes and lands lost long ago, let alone how to pay for it.

"Many of the issues Mr. Bush addressed in his statement, delivered alone at his hotel, have been at the center of previous peace talks that ultimately failed, and reflected American policy long pursued by Mr. Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton. But having faced criticism for speaking of peace only in the broadest way, Mr. Bush publicly addressed what are known as the core issues, even if those remain subject to intense negotiations."

Here's the transcript of his remarks. "These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent," Bush said.

Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Finer write in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Thursday that Palestinian refugees should receive compensation for the loss of homes they fled or were forced to flee during the establishment of Israel and declared that there should be an end to Israel's 'occupation' of lands seized in war four decades ago. . . .

"While Bush has previously used language describing Israel's presence in the West Bank as an 'occupation,' his words Thursday seemed a pointed prod at the Israeli government, coming on his first trip to the country during his presidency. Palestinians have long seen Bush as a partisan of Israel, but some welcomed parts of his statement.

"At the same time, Bush restated his past formulation that Israel cannot be expected to give up all the land captured during the 1967 war, parts of which now have large Israeli settlements, and that the two sides must make territorial compromises that reflect 'current realities.' . . .

"In most respects, Bush's statement Thursday represented a careful reformulation of established positions, packaged to provide the two sides with a basis to pursue negotiations. Bush began calling as early as 2002 for some of the key things he pointed to this week, with no success toward achieving his goal of two peaceful states, Israel and Palestine.

"But his language Thursday on compensation was a first for his administration; Bush's repeated statements that Israel should be a 'Jewish' state have been interpreted as support of the Israeli position that there should not be a wholesale return of Palestinian refugees to their erstwhile property in Israel.

"Until now Bush has resisted the Clinton administration position that the refugees should receive compensation for their losses and suffering."

But the new talk of compensation isn't quite a win for the Palestinians. Quite the contrary. As Myers writes in the Times: "By endorsing compensation for refugees, Mr. Bush sided, at least indirectly, with an Israeli view that the return of Palestinians to Israel was unacceptable since it would change the identity of Israel as a Jewish state."

Two words in particular that Bush used cried out for greater definition: "contiguous" and "occupation."

In calling for a "contiguous" Palestinian state, did he mean that Gaza and the West Bank would be connected? And when calling for "an end to the occupation that began in 1967," did he mean a return to pre-1967 borders, which would mean an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem?

Not likely. But reporters who tried to get some clarity from national security adviser Steve Hadley yesterday were out of luck.

Q: "[W]hen President Bush, in his statement just now, says, for example, 'They must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent' -- what exactly does the President mean when he uses the word 'contiguous'?"

Hadley: "[I]t's not going to be a Swiss cheese state. . . . [T]here is the issue of both what does the territory of the West Bank look like, is it going to be Swiss cheese; and secondly, what are going to be the linkages between West Bank and Gaza if they are going to be part of a Palestinian state? And that is an issue that the parties understand is before them. They have started to discuss it, and it is one of the issues that they are going to have to negotiate."

Q: "[W]hen he talks about ending the occupation, does he mean ending the occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem?"

Hadley: "What he says is, as we've said before, ending the occupation that began in 1967. The borders of the new state, the question of Jerusalem is all going to have to be negotiated between the parties."

He'll Be Back

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Friday that he would return to the Mideast in May to continue pressing the Israelis and Palestinians into reaching a peace agreement and celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary."

Not Funny

Ayman Moyheldin reports for Al Jazeera: "He came with a message of hope, but to many Palestinians, it may be for his side comments and his jokes that George Bush will be remembered for. . . .

"Palestinian officials say the fact that you had a U.S. president on Palestinian Authority territory, talking about a Palestinian state, well they say that in itself is an achievement. But you could just feel the moment melt when George Bush was asked about the hardships that Israeli checkpoints cause Palestinians and he responded by joking about how he didn't have to stop at any."

Here's what Bush said at his joint press conference in Ramallah yesterday: "You'll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped, but I'm not so exactly sure that's what happens to the average person."

Al Jazeera correspondent Rob Reynolds said Bush's remarks showed a lack of "understanding of how bitterly Palestinians resent those barriers, which strangle the local economy and often subject Palestinians to petty humiliations."

Party With the President

Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote in a pool report from last night: "What happens when you ask everyone over to dinner?

"Second desserts and talk -- lots of it -- especially when 'everyone' is pretty much the entire Israeli Cabinet.

"Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's farewell dinner for President Bush Thursday night ran almost until 10 p.m. . . .

"The reason for the late dinner, Israeli officials said, is that everyone wanted to get in their say, particularly leaders of parties that fear concessions to the Palestinians."

Yad Vashem

Aron Heller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush had tears in his eyes during an hour-long tour of Israel's Holocaust memorial Friday and told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the U.S. should have bombed Auschwitz to halt the killing, the memorial's chairman said. . . .

"Bush was visibly moved as he toured the site, said Yad Vashem's chairman, Avner Shalev.

"'Twice, I saw tears well up in his eyes,' Shalev said.

"At one point, Bush viewed aerial photos of the Auschwitz camp taken during the war by U.S. forces and called Rice over to discuss why the American government had decided against bombing the site, Shalev said.

"The Allies had detailed reports about Auschwitz during the war from Polish partisans and escaped prisoners. But they chose not to bomb the camp, the rail lines leading to it, or any of the other Nazi death camps, preferring instead to focus all resources on the broader military effort, a decision that became the subject of intense controversy years later.

"Between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people were killed at the camp.

"'We should have bombed it,' Bush said, according to Shalev."

Here are Bush's remarks after his visit.

When Do We Land in Iraq?

It's really not a question of if Bush visits Iraq, but when.

From today's press gaggle on Air Force One after leaving Israel, with special guest Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:

Q: "So do you have any announcement of where we're going? Anything special?"

Rice: "We're going to Kuwait. (Laughter.)"

Q: "That's what we thought you were going to come back and tell us."

Rice: "No, we are. We really are. In a few minutes -- two hours you'll land in Kuwait, so don't be surprised."

Who's Being Provocative?

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The Pentagon said yesterday that the apparent radio threat to bomb U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf last weekend may not have come from the five Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats that approached them -- and may not even have been intended against U.S. targets.

"The communication Sunday was made on radio channel 16, a common marine frequency used by ships and others in the region. 'It could have been a threat aimed at some other nation or a myriad of other things,' said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp IV, a spokesman for the Navy.

"In the radio message recorded by the Navy, a heavily accented voice said: 'I am coming to you. You will explode after a few minutes.' But Farsi speakers and Iranians told The Washington Post that the accent did not sound Iranian.

"In part because of the threatening language, the United States has elevated the encounter into an international incident. Twice this week, President Bush criticized Iran's behavior as provocative and warned of 'serious consequences' if it happens again. He is due to head today to the Gulf area, where containing Iran is expected to be a major theme of his talks in five oil-rich sheikdoms."

A "five-minute video, released by Iranian television yesterday, offers no indication of the tensions that supposedly sparked the encounter between U.S. and Iranian vessels in the Strait of Hormuz -- and no indication of an intention to attack. The Pentagon said it does not dispute anything in the Iranian video."

Wiretapping Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Telecommunications companies have repeatedly cut off FBI access to wiretaps of alleged terrorists and criminal suspects because the bureau did not pay its phone bills, according to the results of an audit released yesterday. . . .

"The report cited a case in which an order obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- which covers clandestine wiretaps of terrorism and espionage suspects -- was halted because of 'untimely payment.'"

American Civil Liberties Union national security policy counsel Michael German "said that the report raises questions about the motives of large telecom firms, which have, in many cases, allowed the government to run wiretaps on their systems without warrants."

Poll Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush and Congress retained their dismal levels of popularity and huge majorities are unhappy with how things are going in the country, according to a poll released Thursday.

"Thirty-four percent said they approved of the job Bush is doing, about where his ratings have been for more than a year, according to the poll by The Associated Press and Ipsos. Twenty-six percent said they were happy with Congress' performance, little different than where it has been for months."

In the latest Gallup Poll, Bush's job approval rating remains at 32 percent.

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "He's a poll cellar-dweller whom even GOP presidential candidates sneer at, but George W. Bush and some congressional backers see happy days for the prez this year. His fans have dubbed it his 'legacy year,' when they hope to lock in his achievements on the domestic front. . . .

"As for the war, they say, the news has been good, and Bushies believe that their guy will eventually get credit for opening the war on terrorism. But more immediately, they are predicting a remarkable poll shift to about 45 percent favorable by the time he leaves office next year."

Lawrence Lindsey Watch

In an essay adapted from his new book, former chief White House economist Lawrence Lindsey writes in Fortune about why he got in so much trouble in 2002 for his Iraq war cost estimate:

"The real problem with the interview for my colleagues in the White House was not my analysis but that I mentioned a hypothetical cost of the war that might be sufficiently high to raise budgetary objects in Congress. But there was a high cost to their strategy. Five years after the fact, I believe that one of the reasons the administration's efforts are so unpopular is that they chose not to engage in an open public discussion of what the consequences of the war might be, including its economic cost. I think that having done so not only would have been good government, but would also have been good politics. . . .

"Long-term credibility is the best asset any President has, and it is too bad for the country that his credibility was squandered by the White House not being upfront about what the war might cost."

Karen Hughes Watch

Former Bush counselor Karen Hughes writes in Time: "The authoress of the 'vast right-wing conspiracy' charge is not the candidate to bring left and right together and bridge the hyper-partisan divides of Washington. Yet that's the Hillary Clinton that her campaign has been evoking.

"[W]hen I see the Clintons together, I see a parade of images from impeachment to Monica to Ken Starr that are reminders of Washington at its partisan worst, with Hillary as a harsh and accusatory player. She only underscores this with her frequent complaint -- really a reminder -- that she's taken 'incoming fire.'"

Where's the Opposition?

Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, I wonder why the Democratic presidential candidates are talking about leadership -- but aren't showing any when it comes to countering the Bush agenda right now.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart notes Olmert's overly effusive praise for Bush at their joint press conference on Wednesday, and asks: "I wonder if Bush's ass is kosher?"

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on Bush's place in history and Ann Telnaes on Bush's legacy tour.

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