President George W. Bush departs tonight for a multi-stop Mideast trip – with the first stops being in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Over the past several days, policy officials and the press in Washington have been setting expectations for the trip through briefings and conference calls. After the National Security Adviser set the table the President conducted several pre-trip interviews with Israeli and Arab media.
In general terms, the White House appears to be sticking to a consistent theme – in meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the President will encourage and support the renewed peace negotiations, but ultimately the negotiations and hard choices will not be imposed by the United States – they will have to be made by the parties themselves. In that regard, in light of the OU’s intense advocacy against proposals to re-divide Jerusalem, our conversations with officials suggest to us that the President will not make any statements on the topic of Jerusalem.
Sounding a more troubling note, Secretary of State Rice weighed in yesterday in a pre-trip interview. Disturbingly, Secretary Rice chose to stake out some new ground – explicitly equating U.S. disapproval of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank with activity in East Jerusalem.