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President Bush Embraces “Bold” Israeli Plan To Annex West Bank Settlements

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in the United States for his first official visit since coming to office. On Tuesday, President Bush embraced Ehud Olmert’s proposal to annex the major settlement blocs in the West Bank. We get reaction from Afif Safieh, the PLO ambassador to the United States. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush yesterday embraced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s proposal to unilaterally redraw Israel’s boundaries in the occupied West Bank. Olmert is in Washington for his first official visit since winning elections in March. Speaking after the talks, Bush described the Israeli plan as “bold.” But he urged Israel to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians and said a unilateral solution was a last resort. Olmert’s proposal would remove around 60,000 Israelis from isolated settlements in the West Bank but would annex larger settlements which house some 200,000 Israelis, excluding East Jerusalem. Olmert said Israel reserves the right to impose final borders over Palestinian objections if peace talks remain stalled and reiterated he would not negotiate with a Palestinian government led by Hamas. The militant group won a sweeping victory in legislative elections in January. President Bush also condemned Hamas and said he believes a negotiated settlement could still be reached between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Meanwhile Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh repeated Hamas’ overture that it would call a long-term ceasefire if Israel withdrew from all the land it occupied in the 1967 war. But the statement falls short of western demands for Hamas to recognize Israel’s “right to exist.”

  • Afif Safieh, PLO ambassador to the United States.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush also condemned Hamas and said he believes a negotiated settlement could still be reached between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Palestinian Authority President Abbas favors and speaks out for peace and negotiations, yet the Hamas-led Palestinian government does not. Hamas needs to make a strategic choice for peace. The United States and the international community have made clear that Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist, must abandon terror and must accept all previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: That is President Bush. He was speaking yesterday. Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh repeated Hamas’s overture that it would call a long-term ceasefire if Israel withdrew from all the land it occupied in the 1967 War. But the statement falls short of Western demands for Hamas to recognize Israel’s, quote, “right to exist.”

We’re now joined in Washington, D.C., by Afif Safieh. He is the PLO ambassador to the United States. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

AFIF SAFIEH: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, first of all, your response to the summit in Washington and what’s come out of it, between Israel’s Ehud Olmert and President Bush?

AFIF SAFIEH: Well, I believe Mr. Olmert wanted to create a chemistry between him as the newly elected prime minister in Israel with the President of the U.S.A., and he’s working on it during the last 48 hours. It’s unfortunate that the perception was that President Bush gave his blessings to the future plan of Mr. Olmert of unilateral disengagement, one, because Olmert isn’t capacitated to speak about it with authority, because it doesn’t create a consensus within his newly elected coalition. Number two, I think if America was again to align itself on that Israeli preference, it would complicate its relations with its partners in the quartet, meaning Europe and Russia, and number two, it will antagonize the Arab world. You’re not without knowing, ma’am.

We perceive the unilateral inclination of Mr. Olmert not as a step in the peace process, but as a diversion. Israeli policy, unfortunately, so far is to absorb and accaparate and acquire as much of Palestinian geography as possible with as little of Palestinian demography as possible. We are not perceived as the victim of Israeli expansion. We are not seen as a people with national rights. We are seen as a nuisance, a demographic threat. And the purpose of withdrawal, as the way they are conceived, is to get rid of our demography and acquire as much of our geography.

Mr. Olmert, you’re not without knowing, has sworn out 50% of the West Bank during his election campaign, and I, for one, take election campaigns seriously. He said he will accelerate the building of this wall, the apartheid wall, which swallows 15% of the territory and most of the aquifer of water, but he also said the valley, the Jordan Valley, and the beaches or the shore of the Dead Sea will never come to Palestinian or Arab sovereignty, and this Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea shore is around 30% of the teeny-weeny West Bank, where we plan in the future to resettle and bring in three-quarters of a million returning refugees to their homeland. So, 50% of the West Bank was swallowed during an election campaign. It will be really detrimental if the American foreign policy is perceived as aligned on the Israeli preference.

I believe the peace process has been damaged and nonexistent in the last years for two reasons. There is a Palestinian partner: Abu Mazen, the democratically elected president, is available for serious negotiations. What is detrimental is we don’t have an Israeli willing partner, and what is lacking is the third party evenhanded broker. And I have always been amazed and intrigued of the self-inflicted impotence of American diplomacy in the Middle East. America is a superpower around the world, yet on Israel-Palestine it suffers from what I call self-inflicted impotence.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Afif Safieh, can you respond to Bush saying that the Palestinians have to recognize Israel’s right to exist? Is there a difference between asking the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel within its borders and recognizing Israel’s right to exist?

AFIF SAFIEH: We, as a Palestinian national movement, in our mainstream and public opinion polls support that there is a very comfortable majority in favor of the two-state solution. We have been consistent since the middle of the seventh is in favor of a two-state solution. And up to now, we have been the rejected party, not the rejectionist party. And what has weakened the pragmatic school of thought within Palestinian politics is, one, the nonexistent peace process or the unconvincing nature of the previous peace processes. You’re not unaware, ma’am, that during the years of theoretical peacemaking, the illegal settlements doubled in volume and size, and now today on the small West Bank we have over 440 illegal settlers in the West Bank and in and around occupied East Jerusalem. It’s that nature that the occupation expanded during the years of theoretical peacemaking that weakened our pragmatic school of thought.

We are fully in favor of a two-state solution, so we have no problems with recognizing the state of Israel. And as you know, the entire Arab regional state system in the summit meeting, which took place in Beirut in March 2002, offered a Saudi-initiated Arab peace plan with Palestinian blessings, which says the following: if Israel withdraws out of its '67 expansion, we, the Arab world from Morocco to Muscat in Oman, are ready to recognize it in its pre-'67 existence. So the position is obvious.

And I personally believe that a majority from within Hamas could be routed in favor of a credible peace process, with emphasis on “credible.” Unfortunately the attempts today to rob Hamas of its electoral victory, which was not, by the way, a landslide or overwhelming, but it was an electoral victory, is pushing again Hamas back to militant military policy. This is why I question the wisdom and the sagacity of that approach. And Hamas not coming out openly in favor of the two-state solution stems maybe from their hesitation in believing that Israel is ready for total withdrawal out of the '67 Occupied Territories. And I believe that they have a legitimate worry and questioning here, because, as I told you, Olmert never speaks of withdrawing out of the Occupied Territories. He's redeploying Israeli presence in the occupied West Bank to suit Israeli preferences and what he considers to be Israeli interests. I personally always speak with Jewish and Israeli circles, and I tell them security comes from peace, and we, the Palestinians, are the key for your regional acceptance. And security comes from regional acceptance, not from territorial aggrandizements.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador, I want to ask a question about the recent clashes between the security forces of Hamas and Fatah. Are we seeing the beginning of a civil war?

AFIF SAFIEH: No, I exclude this possibility, because public opinion in Palestine is totally against the possibility of a civil war. We are a society that has been so much tormented by history and even by humanity that we should not inflict on ourselves additional pain. We have had a troubled relationship just after the election for the simple reason we are having a political system which is bipolar. We are trying to harmonize the relationship. And I believe tomorrow President Mahmoud Abbas will be triggering a national dialogue with all the factions included, and I have great expectations for this national dialogue. I believe our system will survive politically. We will avoid the scenario of civil war. The pressure of public opinion, and I bow in respect to that, Palestinian people, this collective hero, because of what they have had to endure as collective pain and suffering, their voice will be heard by the factions, who will avoid escalation and tension. I believe we still have to learn to function with a political system that we have to grow accustomed with. I exclude civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador, we’re going to break. And then when we come back, we’re going to debate what happened in the House yesterday, the bill that was passed, cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority. Ambassador Afif Safieh is our guest, Palestinian Liberation Organization ambassador to the United States.

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