U.S. President George Bush is expressing pessimism about progress toward Middle East peace, saying he sees no real change in attitudes among either Palestinian or Israeli leaders toward taking the steps necessary to achieve it. The president took issue with both sides during an extended news conference at the White House Tuesday that focused largely on the Middle East.
Mr. Bush left no doubt how much he believes the on-going power struggle within the Palestinian leadership has held back progress toward peace - ever since the resignation of Yasser Arafat's first prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, who quit in frustration last month.
"Unfortunately, he is no longer in power. He was eased out of power and I do not see the same commitment to fight terror from the old guard. And therefore, it's going to be very hard to move the peace process forward until there is a focused effort by all parties to assume their responsibilities," he said.
Mr. Bush was asked about U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians on the same day that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat appeared to have made progress in persuading his latest prime minister not to resign. Ahmed Qureia had threatened to quit amid an on-going dispute with Chairman Arafat over control of Palestinian security forces, which Israel and the United States charge have failed to prevent on-going terrorist attacks against Israel.
On Capitol Hill, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was even more blunt in his assessment of where the U.S.-backed road map for peace stands. "Anyone would have to acknowledge that's a very ruddy and bumpy map at present," he said.
With no signs of progress toward peace and a cease-fire between both sides no longer in place, Israel is moving ahead with construction of a controversial security barrier, which it says is needed to keep out suicide bombers. But parts of the proposed barrier are slated to extend into Arab land in the occupied West Bank. That's led many Palestinians to believe and U.S. officials including President Bush to raise concerns - that the barrier could be used to re-draw the Israeli map before anything has been agreed to in negotiations.
"I have said the fence is a problem to the extent that the fence is an opportunity to make it difficult for a Palestinian state to emerge. There is a difference between security and land acquisition," he said.
Israel denies the security barrier amounts to a redrawing of boundaries. But government spokesman Rannan Gissin says construction will not stop as long as Palestinian leaders fail to stop suicide bombings.
"At many times in the 55 years of Israel's existence, we've built fences and then dismantled them," he said. "We've had fences with Egypt, we've had fences with Jordan and we dismantled or changed their location. The one thing you can't change, that is not reversible is those people who are getting killed, men, women and children, whole families wiped out because of a lack of a fence."
But President Bush also brought up the issue of Israeli settlements on Arab land, telling reporters the ground must be right, as he put it, for any future Palestinian state to emerge.