Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas came to his White House meeting with President George W. Bush carrying several messages, the most important being that the Palestinians have fulfilled the vast majority of their phase one road map obligation and that Israel was blocking further progress.
Speaking at a 31 July 2003 Palestine Center briefing, Diana Buttu, a legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Negotiations Affairs Department, said Abbas emphasized to Bush three issues that were impeding progress on the road map: Israel’s construction of an apartheid wall, Israel’s continued settlement expansion, and the incarceration of several thousand Palestinian political prisoners. Abbas also raised the issue of Israel’s confinement of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat to his Ramallah headquarters.
On the issue of the so-called Separation Wall, Buttu said Abbas told Bush that if Israel continues to build the Wall, which will enclose and isolate the Palestinians in cantons and enclaves, Bush’s vision of two states, Palestine and Israel, will not be possible. On settlements, Abbas stressed the need for an immediate settlement freeze as stated in the road map. Buttu warned of a growing trend among U.S. officials including Bush, to link Jewish settlements with Palestinian violence. The United States has stated that it will enforce a settlement freeze only when violence decrease. Buttu pointed out that between 1997 and 2000, not one Israeli was killed by a suicide bomber however, settlement construction was the most active during that period.
The third issue discussed by Abbas was the fate of approximately 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners. Buttu said the vast majority of the Palestinian prisoners have not been convicted and of the 1,461 who have been tried, only 320 were convicted of a violent crime. Around 1,000 are administrative detainees and 351 are under the age of 18.
According to Buttu, Abbas explained to Bush that in order to get the Palestinian people to believe in the road map, there must be tangible results. A good demonstration of the credibility of the road map would be a genuine prisoner release. Given that 20 percent of the Palestinian population had been detained by Israel, Abbas argued that there was no greater symbol of occupation than a political prisoner.
Buttu said Bush was and is very “concerned” about Abbas’ messages-particularly regarding the construction of the Wall and the continued settlement activity. Bush also expressed concern over the fact that Israel had done nothing to implement the road map. Buttu believes that there is a growing approach on the part of the Bush administration to take a tougher stance with Israel. “It is becoming clear to this administration that Israel is not doing what is required of it under this road map,” Buttu said.
However, when pressed by Abbas to give guarantees that the road map will be implemented, Bush responded by saying that while he was concerned to see the road map implemented, he was equally concerned about violence and terrorism.
The Abbas visit came at a time when the prime minister’s popularity has been steadily decreasing. Buttu explained that his dwindling popularity is due to three factors. First, Abbas was appointed by Arafat and not elected by the people. As a result, he is not a democratically elected leader and so, he is not a popular leader. Secondly, the Abbas government has taken unpopular measures while Israel has not reciprocated, making Abbas’ actions extremely unfavorable. Finally, Israel has taken steps to “deliberately” undermine the road map, the two major actions being the Wall and settlement expansion.
Abbas had hoped he would boost his popularity by securing some guarantees from the White House that Israel will implement its road map obligations. However, all he got was an expression of concern.
Despite this, Buttu says she is “not at all pessimistic.” She believes that for the first time Bush seems to understand what is happening in the Occupied Territories. “For the first time Bush is engaged. Will it be sustained? We must wait and see,” Buttu said.
The above text is based on remarks delivered on 31 July 2003 by Diana Buttu at the Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund or the Palestine Center.