AJCommittee’s official assesses Bush trip, Iran

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The recent eight-day trip to the Middle East by President George W. Bush, which included talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and efforts to enlist the support of neighboring Arab states in the peace talks and a united front against threats from Iran, were among the topics discussed with St. Louis Jewish leaders by Eran Lerman, director of the Israel/Mideast Office for the American Jewish Committee.

Lerman spoke mostly off-the-record to members of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and to members of the St. Louis Chapter of the AJCommittee, and also sat down for an exclusive interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light in the Clayton office of the local AJCommittee.

Taking note of the numerous religious sites Bush visited in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, which were important to his Christian faith, Lerman said: “There were the red-carpet events and ceremonial receptions, with the presidents and the prime ministers, and thus there was also a visit to Christian sites on both sides, sustaining the symmetry,” Lerman said, reiterating his comments in one of his weekly written briefings from the region. “The day before his northern tour,” Lerman added, “Bush went from Ramallah, in a convoy, to pay his respects at the Church of Nativity in Manger Square in Bethlehem. Therein lay the message, which symbolic acts convey better than many words: the United States, for all intents and purposes, is already acting towards the Palestinians in ways which emphasize the sovereignty they could enjoy once the talks in Annapolis come to fruition.”

At Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas, in the presence of Bush, Secretary of Condoleeza Rice and representatives of about 40 neighboring Arab states, including Syria, pledged to work toward the goal of an independent Palestinian state before the end of the Bush Administration. “I am not sure that there will be an agreement by that time in which an actual state will be set up with provisional borders as envisioned in Stage Two of the Road map for Middle East peace,” Lerman said, adding that it will be difficult to meet the “semi-symmetrical demands posed by both sides: Israel should desist from expanding the settlements, and must finally stand by the commitment to remove the unauthorized ‘outposts.'” He added, “At the same time, Bush asked President Mahmoud Abbas to acknowledge seriously the need to confront the terrorists; and to take into account that real progress towards implementing any agreements cannot be made, until the escalating violence, emanating from the Gaza Strip, is brought under control.”

Even during Lerman’s visit, events in the region were getting more violent. “This week, the continued attacks from Gaza claimed the life of an Equadorian volunteer, shot to death by a sniper while working the fields in a kibbutz near the border, as well as dozens of Palestinians mostly–but not only–combatants.”

Lerman said that there were “raised eyebrows in Israel” over the perception that Bush did not fully take into account the fact “that Abbas is not in control of Gaza, which has become ‘Hamastan’ through a violent coup last summer.” Other difficult “core issues” remain to be resolved, which will not be easy for either Olmert or Abbas, who are relatively weak in terms of political power. Those issues include the continued Palestinian demand for a “right of return” of descendants of refugees from the 1948 Israel War of Independence into Israel proper rather than to the new Palestinian state–a concept which no Israel leader can accept. There must be firm action to stop the ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza. “No deal could be implemented unless the people of Sderot and Ashqelon–as well as Beit Hanun and Gaza–sleep soundly in their beds at night.”

In addition, added Lerman, “If Abbas cannot find a way to ‘bring back Gaza’–where a reported majority is increasingly sick and tired of the ruin the Hamas has brought upon them–it may fall to the IDF to do so for him: but the present situation is not sustainable.”

Lerman also anticipated the “breach within Olmert’s coalition, with Avigdor Liebermann’s Beit Beitenu Party (is) bolting out.” In addition, Olmert is insecure as he “sails into the uncharted political waters awaiting him after the Winograd Commission’s final report comes out.” The Winograd Commission was set up to investigate Israel’s governmental and military conduct during last summer’s 34-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was widely criticized as failing to decisively defeat the Hezbollah terrorists operating out of Lebanon.

“There is a lot at stake in resolving the current stalemate over choosing a president in Lebanon,” Lerman said. Syria is being investigated by a United Nations task force for its alleged role in assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri and other pro-Western leaders. “That action was a serious mistake for Syria if it was responsible,” Lerman said, pointing out that France was close to Harriri and has since cooperated closely with the United States in efforts to bring stability and reduce Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Regarding the recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz in which Iranian boats harassed a U.S. Navy fleet, Lerman described the action as “extremely provocative,” and said that under international law the United States would have been justified if it sank the ships, especiallhy in view of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole by Al Qaeda. “Iran is still very much a threat to Israel and the entire region,” Lerman said.

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