The World from Berlin No 'Swiss Cheese' for the Palestinians

President Bush went to Israel this week and sketched a vision of peace -- including a "contiguous" Palestinian state that won't resemble "Swiss cheese." Can he really achieve that with just one remaining year in his final term in the White House?


Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited Bush back to Israel for the nation's 60th anniversary in May.
REUTERS

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited Bush back to Israel for the nation's 60th anniversary in May.

US President George W. Bush ended his first peace mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Friday with an upbeat message, no significant breakthroughs and a promise to return in May.

"There's a good chance for peace and I want to help you," Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres at a farewell ceremony on the tarmac before he boarded his plane, saying he would accept an invitation to come back for Israel's 60th anniversary in the spring.

Bush combined a hands-off policy on an eventual peace agreement -- saying Israelis and Palestinians would have to settle the details themselves -- with a few words of warning for each side. Israel, he said, would have to "end settlement expansion" and adjust its boundaries "to reflect current realities" in the West Bank, while the Palestinians would have to confront terrorists and "dismantle terrorist infrastructures." He said he expected a peace deal to end in the founding of a "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent Palestinian state," with safe and recognized borders for Israel.

His most colorful promise -- which resonated in the German press -- was that a Palestinian state should look whole, rather than riddled with Israeli settlements. "Swiss cheese isn't going to work when it comes to the outline of a state," he said.

Bush insists he wants a peace agreement by January 2009, before he leaves office. But he admits the obstacles are huge -- and he made no direct public mention of Gaza, where Hamas fighters have been lobbing rockets over the Israeli border, as if to emphasize that at least one Palestinian faction has no interest in peace.

German papers on Friday are picking apart the president's mission and offering analyses in line with their political postures.

The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"If you read Bush's first trip to the Middle East in a sympathetic way, he seems to have told Prime Minister Olmert that Washington was against the illegal Jewish settlements that have sprung up in the occupied territories like mushrooms. And he generously promised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that a future Palestinian state shouldn't look like 'Swiss cheese' -- the current situation, in other words, would seem to be unacceptable to Bush. But everything he said was empty."

"Bush has not, as many people believe, ignored the Middle East during his terms in office -- on the contrary. He has made decisive changes. He has rejected the longstanding international consensus that all Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal. When Bush talks about removing illegal settlements on the West Bank, he means the US for practical purposes has accepted (as legal) the Israelis' large, strategic settlement blocks in the occupied territories. And though Bush likes to gloat about being the first US president to call for a two-state solution, he has in fact paved the way for Israel's homeland security plan."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"As expected, Bush has openly chosen sides in his trip -- for Israel. This is no surprise, because the US has been pro-Israel since the 1960s. On the second day of his trip, though, he started making critical noises: He let the Israelis know that a viable Palestinian state should be contiguous and not look like 'Swiss cheese.' That was unexpected."

"These are positive signals from a man who is in constant danger of being overwhelmed by Israeli politics and making impossible demands on the Palestinians' current main hope, Mahmoud Abbas. A leader who, like Olmert -- or like Bush at an earlier point in his presidency -- demands a complete end to terrorism as a prerequisite for peace only forces Abbas back into the traps set by Hamas. He can't win the Gaza Strip from Hamas militarily -- so he should enter into negotiations with Hamas, in order to bring them around to ending violence? A new accord between (Abbas' Fatah party) and Hamas will only bring Islamists who are uninterested in peace back into the negotiations, and they would then boycott the Annapolis process."

The conservative daily Die Welt, on the other hand, argues:

"Over the years it's become a foreign-policy mantra for many Europeans to castigate George W. Bush for his lack of engagement in the Middle East. The same critics often forget that Bush is the first president to declare the founding of a new Palestinian state to be official US policy. He's also the first president to visit the unoccupied territories. And he didn't spare Israel criticism. 'Swiss cheese isn't going to work when it comes to the outline of a state,' he said. And he's called on the government in Jerusalem not to hinder the creation of functioning Palestinian security forces."

"Bush is apparently ready to invest a lot of energy and political capital into the new Middle East process between now and the end of his term. But reaching for this new chance for peace, in the end, lies in the hands of the Israelis and Palestinians."

-- Michael Scott Moore, 3:30pm CET

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