As he visits Israel this week for the second time in four months, President George W. Bush has scaled down his expectations for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Instead of the optimism he displayed late last year when he spoke of the creation of a Palestinian state before he left office, Bush told Israeli journalists Monday that he was hoping the two sides could “get a state defined by the end of my presidency.”
Israelís peace movement, largely dormant since Ariel Sharon was first elected prime minister three years ago, resurfaced last weekend amid calls for a political framework for peace and withdrawal from a contentious settlement in Gaza.
An estimated 4,000 Israelis took to the street Saturday night to protest Sharon's policies in a demonstration outside his Jerusalem residence.
Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party and one of the participants, said this was the first major demonstration against Sharon.
Local Jewish leaders returned from a 37-hour solidarity trip to Israel this week strengthened in their resolve that, as UJA-Federation executive vice president John Ruskay put it, "We're all in this together."
He added that Israelis seemed committed to "stand firm, particularly after the prime minister had made such an offer for peace" this summer at Camp David. But Ruskay also sensed "an undercurrent of despondency. The choices are difficult and limited, and that's what makes this a crisis."
Even as Wednesday's summit meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, kicked off the first steps down the road map to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, the government of Israel is continuing to erect an elaborate security barrier to separate Israel from Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, called the multimillion-dollar barrier a costly "insurance policy."
The terrorist rampage this week that killed 12 Israelis in five suicide bombings within 48 hours is being seen by Israeli leaders as orchestrated by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to undermine the leadership of his new prime minister. Israeli leaders were said to have few military options left to stop the terror attacks, which also scuttled nascent peace efforts.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Israel this weekend to discuss the "road map" for peace, he will find Palestinian President Yasir Arafat still firmly in control of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refusing to even discuss the plan until the Palestinians give up their right-of-return to Israel.
"The big issue is that Arafat is still in control and there has been no regime change," said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
In a move that could scuttle renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts now that the war in Iraq is over, the Palestinians have included in their new constitution their right to return to homes they fled in 1948. But the Israeli government insisted this week that the "road map" toward the creation of a Palestinian state be amended to preclude the right of return.
The so-called Geneva Initiative, a peace proposal unveiled this week by former and current Israeli lawmakers and Palestinian officials, is designed to demonstrate to the Israeli public that "there are decent people on the other side, that there is what to talk about, and basically whom to talk to."
That was the assessment of Colette Avital, a Knesset member from the Labor Party who at one time participated in the effort to formulate the proposal. She insisted that at no time was it an attempt to replace or circumvent the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush, following their sixth meeting in 15 months, agreed this week that reforms promised by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to provide security for Israelis were insufficient to warrant renewed peace talks.
A day later, a roadside bomb injured three Israeli teenagers and a Palestinian suicide bomber killed a 15-year-old girl and injured nine others.
"No one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government," Bush said after an Oval Office meeting with Sharon.