Bush: Outposts must be evacuated
United States President George W. Bush will meet today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and tell him that the choice before him "is of a state or chaos." Bush's message for Israel stressed the need to remove illegal West Bank outposts.
Bush, who began a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority yesterday as part of an eight-day tour of the Middle East, told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that it would be to the advantage of Israel and the Palestinians to reach a final-status agreement while he was still president.
Those who met the president yesterday said that he appeared impatient and eager for achievements, and felt that if the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians hits an impasse due to domestic political problems in Israel and the PA, then he would not hesitate to end his involvement in the process.
The U.S. president arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport at noon and following an official reception ceremony, met for talks with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The meeting with Olmert began with a closed-door discussion on the Iranian nuclear threat, and was followed by an expanded forum, with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, during which Israel presented its security requirements from the Palestinians.
The prime minister discussed with Bush one of the main principles guiding Israel in the negotiations with the Palestinians, namely that "the status of Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs is not equal to that of the other settlements in the West Bank."
Olmert said that the president asked for his commitment to an end to the confiscation of land in the West Bank, an end to the construction of new settlements, and the evacuation of illegal outposts.
"Sometimes not everyone is pleased with our position on this matter and we do not hide it," Olmert said. "The Palestinians too, know that there is no new construction or confiscation of land, but they also know that Jerusalem and the settlement blocs do not share the same status as the rest of the West Bank."
But in a clear message to the leader of Yisrael Beitenu, Vice Premier Avigdor Lieberman, who is threatening to leave the coalition over concessions to the Palestinians, Olmert said that "I do hope that all the coalition partners will remain in it.
"I do not think that there is anyone who would like to see this government become unstable. Our differences are much smaller," Olmert added.
For his part, Bush was adamant about the outposts. "The outposts must be evacuated. We have been talking about this for four years. They are illegal and they have to evacuate them," the president said.
However, Bush said that he does not intend to dictate an agreement to the two sides.
"My trip here is a sufficient push," he said. "But an agreement that we dictate will not hold. We are willing to help, but the two sides must reach an agreement on their own."
Bush did note that the two sides must progress on the core issues - Jerusalem, refugees, borders.
He also said that "it is necessary to define what a Palestinian state will look like."
The prime minister emphasized Israel's commitment to progress. "I am not afraid of difficult decisions," Olmert said. "I am willing to make decisions that will include painful compromises. We have no interest in delaying the negotiations to a time when, God forbid, there will be changes on the Palestinian side, or delay them at a time when we have such significant American support."
Among Israel's security requirements brought before Bush is the demand for the freedom to operate in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip throughout the period of the negotiations; Palestinian disarmament and Israeli security monitoring over the future Palestinian state; the presence of security forces in the Jordan Valley for a considerable period after an accord is reached, and the right to deploy the IDF in the West Bank during an emergency.
Livni briefed the president on the progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians.
Bush asked many questions and showed a detailed command of the issues.
Iran's nuclear program
The U.S. president also stressed yesterday that "Iran was a threat, Iran is a threat, and Iran will be a threat if the international community does not come together and prevent that nation from the development of the know-how to build a nuclear weapon."
At a press conference following his meeting with Olmert, Bush said that the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program did not alter his stance.
"I interpreted it [the NIE] to mean you better take the Iranian's threat seriously," he added.
Iran's nuclear program was at the center of the closed-door meeting between Bush and Olmert. The prime minister presented Bush with a detailed briefing prepared by Israeli intelligence in recent weeks, following the NIE report which concluded that Iran had frozen its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"Our unequivocal conclusion," Olmert said, referring to the Israeli report, "is that they [the Iranians] are busy developing nuclear weapons."
Bush agreed, saying that his understanding of the NIE report is that the Iranians could resume their weapons program with the same ease that they froze it in 2003.
He reiterated his view that diplomatic and economic pressure should be used to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and said that Iran is paying an economic price for its intransigence.
Bush stressed that the United States is not in conflict with the Iranian people, but warned that the actions of its government are leading to Iran's isolation.
During the press conference, Bush also referred to the recent incident in the Persian Gulf in which Iran's Revolutionary Guard used speedboats to challenge three U.S. Navy warships in the Straits of Hormuz. He warned them "not to do it" saying that the implications of any such action would be severe.