Bush Visits Israel on Peace Mission

President Bush is in Israel to rejuvenate peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The New York Times' Steven Erlanger gives insight about the mission.

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BILL WOLFF, host:

Despite focus in the country on the presidential primaries, we continue to cover the man who is still the president. We look today to Israel, where President Bush is visiting for the first time in his presidency. His stated mission is to rejuvenate peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Those talks started at Annapolis, Maryland at a summit in November, but they have since stalled. What effect will Mr. Bush's trip to the region have on the elusive possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace?

On the line with us from Israel is New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Steve Erlanger.

Steve, good morning.

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, New York Times): Good morning.

WOLFF: First question to you: From your understanding, why has it taken President Bush seven years to make his first trip to the Middle East?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I've asked that question, and their response is that they didn't want to get bogged down in an endless negotiation the way they felt President Clinton did. They felt the parties who were not ready for serious talks. And, of course, after 9/11, Mr. Bush basically defined the world into terrorists and non-terrorists, and he put Yasser Arafat on the sort of terrorist side. So there was no way to talk to them from the Bush point of view. I think they missed an opportunity when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president after the death of Yasser Arafat in January 2005. A year later, Hamas was elected to run the Palestinian authority.

And now, of course, the Bush people are saying that the deterioration in the Palestinian society and, in a way, the creeping annexation of the West Bank by Israel, making it imperative to shore up a two-states solution, particularly in the context of a rising Iranian power, which makes a lot of America's allies in the Sunni Arab world extremely nervous.

WOLFF: From - just for perspective, how would you describe the level of tension in that region - specifically Israel and Palestine - today, relative to the last several years? Are we closer to peace? Are we further away? Are we moving toward it? Are we moving away from it?

Mr. ERLANGER: I think, right now, it feels very virtual. The Palestinians are exhausted, and they're divided. I mean, a big part of their future state, Gaza, is under the control of Hamas, and the man doing the negotiating - elected President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah - doesn't control Gaza. So it's very difficult to make peace with a people, in a way, at war with itself. But the Israelis, under Prime Minister Olmert, who's himself a weak politician meeting an agenda, they do trust George Bush. They do believe he has their security at heart, and they know that another generation of occupation, you know, can be done, but it's not to the benefit of Israel.

Israel would like to negotiate a division of the land. It will be controversial, not all Israelis agree. But most Israelis do. They want this long occupation to stop for their own sakes, not just for the Palestinian's sakes. But they also want a stable Palestinian state on the other side. So that's the problem.

How do you build the institutions that are future of Palestinian states when a big part of the Palestinian nation isn't sure whether it wants to build a state or fight a war, or whether war is really the best way to begin serious negotiations of Israel? There's a lot of mistrust of the Israelis and the Palestinians. There's a lot of mistrust of the Palestinians from the Israelis. And a little bit, both sides have lost faith in themselves, too. So it's a down period, but it always good, I think, that the Americans are involved. They are pushing the two sides to talk and hoping to at least block the stagnation and look ahead.

WOLFF: You wrote today about Mr. Bush's collegial relationship with Prime Minister Olmert. They're buddies. They are both athletes. They like to smoke cigars. But given your previously stated analysis that Olmert isn't particularly popular, how does Bush's buddy-buddy relationship with Olmert affect his influence in the region? If Olmert isn't popular and Bush is his buddy, does - how does that influence what's going on?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, Bush isn't very popular, either. So, you know, in a way, you've got two guys that kind of need each other. I mean, it helps Bush that Olmert is friendly to him. In American political terms, it certainly helps Olmert that - who's facing at the end of this month for the final report of a very critical commission into the Lebanon war and his performance, which will leave him slightly shaky. It's very important to the president that, you know, be with him hand in hand.

For the region, it's dicier, because Bush is seen as not an evenhanded actor. Even though he's called for the establishment of the Palestinian state, most Palestinians - and I think most Arabs in the region - regard him as Israel's friend and not the Palestinian's friend. And I think that's the biggest problem.

WOLFF: President Bush today said not only does he hope there will be a peace agreement by the end of his presidential term, he knows there will be. He stated with some certainly, we will have a peace arrangement. I only have a year left, and this is going to happen. A, what is the strategy in saying such a thing, and B, is that a realistic goal?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I think it's a faith-based goal. Olmert has said very openly that Bush is such a good friend and he has Israel's security at heart that we should take advantage of this presidency if we're going to do this, because we don't know what's going to happen. And Olmert has also said, we don't know what will succeed Mahmoud Abbas, who, though weak, is a person who believes in peace and believes in two states and believes in negotiations.

So I think that kind of drives the process, and I think Bush has been here telling both leaders, Olmert and Abbas, look, you better get moving. If you're serious, then I'll be serious. If you're not serious, I'm going to walk away because the United States can't want a deal more than the two parties want a deal.

And even if they do have a deal, what we're actually talking about, it's important to remember, is a peace agreement, if they can reach one, that will be put on a shelf while it's implemented. It would have to be implemented over a number of years. The Israelis are not going to be pulling back from the West Bank until they're sure there's a Palestinian security force there that will protect them and that the West Bank will not become like Gaza, a source of rockets into Israel.

WOLFF: Well, thank you, Steven. Steven Erlanger is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.

Thank you very much for being with us and letting us know what's going on over there.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thank you.

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