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Resources on Bush-Sharon Press Conference

April 14, 2004
April 14th, 2004

Press conference transcript: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/04/20040414-4.html

Sharon letter to Bush: http://www.pmo.gov.il/english/ts.exe?tsurl=0.22.7853.0.0

Bush letter to Sharon: http://www.pmo.gov.il/english/ts.exe?tsurl=0.22.7850.0.0

Bush statement: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/04/20040414-2.html

Talking Points:

By Phyllis Bennis
Institute for Policy Studies
15 April 2004

Bush’s embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral plan to annex six major West Bank settlement blocs and reject the internationally-recognized Palestinian right of return as a quid pro quo for Sharon’s pull-out from most Gaza settlements represents a major defeat for Palestinian human rights and international law, and a huge consolidation of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. While U.S. policy has, since 1967, tacitly accepted Israel’s illegal settlements and done nothing to even encourage the end of the occupation, Bush’s position represents a sharp break with longstanding precedent of supporting a negotiated settlement and even more sharply with Bush’s own (however disingenuous) claim to support a two-state solution.

In his rejection of the right of return and his acceptance of the permanence of Israeli occupation, Bush banished the possibility of achieving a serious and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The “new status quo” of U.S.-recognized permanent Israeli occupation, no right of return and no viable Palestinian state will set the terms for the next indefinite period, with the possibility of any change dependent on a future Israeli determination that it has found a newly “acceptable” Palestinian negotiating partner.

The U.S. position returns Middle East diplomacy to its pre-1991 position, when Palestinians were excluded from all negotiations. Israeli-U.S. negotiations become the substitute for Israeli-Palestinian talks, with the U.S. free to concede Palestinian land and rights. As one PLO legal advisor told the New York Times, “imagine if Palestinians said, `O.K., we give California to Canada.’ Americans should stop wondering why they have so little credibility in the Middle East."

The official U.S. acceptance of the Israeli occupation of huge swathes of Palestinian territory, and the Bush administration’s willingness to cede internationally-recognized Palestinian rights represents a new version of the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which Britain, the colonial power, guaranteed settlers of the early Zionist movement a “national Jewish homeland” in Palestine disregarding the rights of the indigenous population.

While calling for Israel to make the Apartheid Wall a “security border” and not a “political border,” Bush made clear he has no intention to hold Israel accountable for the Wall’s violations of international law. The finding of the Wall’s illegality by the UN General Assembly, and the likely decision of the International Court of Justice regarding the consequences of that illegality, were ignored.

The U.S. endorsement reaffirms the U.S. willingness to violate international law, ignore the United Nations Charter and undermine UN resolutions (including the often-cited resolution 242 which unequivocally prohibits “the acquisition of territory by force”) to provide diplomatic and political protection for Israel. It even violates the terms of the U.S.-imposed but internationally endorsed “roadmap,” which stipulates that Israel must freeze all settlement activity in its first phase. Sharon stated explicitly that the six major settlement blocs should continue to grow and be strengthened.

In the short and medium term, Bush’s move will likely lead to a spike in his political support in the election campaign. However, recognition of the long-term dangers inherent in such an explicit embrace of the most one-sided acceptance of settlements and denial of Palestinian rights ever endorsed by a U.S. president, may bring about a later drop in electoral support.

The U.S. action demonstrates the increasing isolation of the Bush administration. Government officials and commentators from around the world have been unified in condemning Bush’s statements. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized the U.S. endorsement of Israel’s unilateral plan, stating that “final status issues should be determined in negotiations between the parties based on relevant Security Council resolutions.” It is unlikely that even chief Bush-backer Tony Blair of Britain will endorse his partner’s action in meetings scheduled for today.

Sharon’s “Gaza withdrawal” plan is predicated on an end to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Sharon made clear that he views its results as part of a “long-term interim solution,” in which Israeli occupation will be retooled to remain in place virtually forever, without ever reaching “final status” negotiations. That reflects the vast power disparity between occupied and occupier; for Israel, an end to Palestinian resistance (enforced, or willing, or fenced off) is all that is required to make the current situation perfectly acceptable for the long-term. For Palestinians, an end to violence would leave them still stateless, living in isolated and truncated bantustans, cut off from each other and surrounded by Israeli walls, troops and territory.

The plan’s terms were negotiated by Sharon’s minions for many months not with Palestinian interlocutors, however, but with the Bush administration. So it was clear even before the joint Bush-Sharon press conference that U.S. backing was certain. All that was left to be announced was how much U.S. support would be explicit, and how much couched in coded language.

Bush’s actual language was far more explicit than most analysts anticipated. Calling Sharon’s plan “courageous and historic,” Bush went on to embrace a new status quo, making permanent the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. In Bush’s words, the “new realities” on the West Bank made it “unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the unrealistic 1949 armistice line.” The reference to 1949 was a deliberate effort to deflect attention away from the Israeli occupation of 1967, and instead remind listeners (especially pro-Israeli voters in the U.S.) of the alleged “vulnerability” of Israel in the pre-1967 period, often used to justify the 1967 occupations

On the right of return, in a sharp departure from earlier officially vague U.S. positions (however disingenuous), Bush officially welcomed Israel’s longstanding rejectionism. He stated that the Palestinian refugee problem should be solved by “the establishment of a Palestinian state and settling of Palestinian refugees there, not in the state of Israel.” He also referred several times to the “Jewish character of Israel,” code for acceptance of the Israeli concerns regarding the racist-termed “demographic bomb.” He thus dismissed longstanding international law (the Geneva Conventions, which guarantee all war-time refugees the right to return to their home regardless of the particular reasons they fled or were forced to flee), and specific United Nations resolutions (including 194, which since 1949 specifically guarantees Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and to compensation for their losses).

Response among Palestinians was swift. Palestinian officials across the political spectrum had preemptively condemned Sharon’s plan even before its embrace by George Bush. The continuing refusal of U.S. officials to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians, the isolation and sidelining of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, the willingness of the U.S. to give away Palestinian land and Palestinian rights as if they were their own, culminated in the absence of even a token Palestinian presence at the Bush-Sharon press conference. The result is an extraordinary escalation in the sense of Palestinian political humiliation, with their recognized leaders, however compromised, utterly excluded from the decision-making determining their future. That political humiliation, and international isolation, now match the on-going humiliation on the ground facing Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. The result is almost certain to lead to an upsurge in violent resistance.

Regional and international response, particularly among Arab and Muslim countries, was immediate. Condemnation from Arab and Muslim governments, and deep unease was widespread among U.S. allies. It remains unclear whether the European Union will officially condemn the U.S. position; along with the United Nations and Russia, the EU’s ostensible role in the so-called “Quartet” supporting the “road map” has been completely sidelined by the new Bush position. It also remains uncertain whether the UN General Assembly, anticipating a certain U.S. veto in the Security Council, will take on the challenge of crafting a serious condemnation of the U.S. endorsement of Sharon’s illegality.

Sharon had been floating his “withdrawal from Gaza” proposal for some months, facing significant opposition from his right-wing Likud bloc, and particularly from the settler movement which has historically been his primary political base. Being able to claim U.S. backing for the illegal annexation of major West Bank settlement blocs (which together hold over 100,000 Israeli settlers) as well as U.S. acceptance of the longstanding Israeli rejection of the Palestinian right of return gives Sharon crucial political cover.

The Gaza settler population, while economically valuable for Israel (not surprising given that the settlers control 40% of the land and a commensurate proportion of the water of the Gaza Strip) is tiny, only 7,000 Israeli settlers. Living among 1 ½ million Palestinians, the majority of them impoverished refugees in squalid camps, the settlements remain costly in military terms, requiring deployment of significant numbers of Israeli troops to back the armed settlers. The effect of the Sharon plan’s U.S. endorsement will likely be wider backing from Sharon’s right (with the exception of the most ideologically-driven of the settler movement) as well as acceptance from the mainstream Labor Party, who will likely focus on Sharon’s “historic withdrawal” from Gaza and paint it as a first step towards a two-state solution, ignoring the far more significant U.S. embrace of annexation and rejection of the right of return. Right-wing and settler opposition to Sharon’s plan will likely be narrowly-based and short-lived.