Bush Says He Won't 'Force' Middle East Peace

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - New policies will guide U.S.-Israeli relations, a fact that became evident Tuesday as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush held their first meeting since each of them took office. But it was also clear that the two nations continue to share common goals and friendly relations.

Bush and Sharon held what one Israeli official described as an "extremely positive" meeting at the White House, focused on Middle East stability, bilateral relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The two leaders have a "similar ideology and approach to the Middle East," said Ambassador Avi Pazner, chairman of Keren Hayesod, the organization in charge of immigration to Israel.

"In Israel, people are generally pleased to see the firm commitment of the U.S. to the security of Israel," Pazner said in a phone interview on Wednesday. Strategic cooperation has been strengthened, he said, and "in many domains" the two leaders see eye-to-eye on the problem and solution.

The new U.S. administration will place "more emphasis on stability than grand moves," said Pazner, referring to the previous administration's preoccupation with peace talks, and the Bush team's overall approach to the Middle East, including the containment of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Iran.

"Our nation will not try to force peace," Bush told reporters after he and Sharon held their first meeting. "We will facilitate peace and ... work with those responsible for peace."

The views contrasted sharply with those of the former Clinton administration, which was intimately involved in the ultimately unsuccessful negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"The first thing and the most important one is to bring security to the citizens of Israel," Sharon said he told the president. "Once we reach security and it will be
calm in the Middle East, I believe that we'll start with our negotiations to reach a peace agreement."

Unlike his predecessor, Ehud Barak, Sharon has been adamant that Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinians as long as terror attacks continue.

The U.S. has indicated that it supports Israel's demand that the terrorism and violence stop before negotiations proceed.

Sharon said he was a "great supporter" of the president's policy of maintaining "stability" in the Middle East, the main threat to which is terrorism. The Israeli leader has tried to get the U.S. to back Israel and demand that PA Chairman Yasser Arafat rein in terror.

Sharon said he had told Bush he would not interfere in a decision on whether Arafat should be invited to the White House - although he said extending such an invitation "could be interpreted as a sign that terrorism pays."

Bush sidestepped a reporter's question on whether or not Arafat would be invited. He said the U.S. wanted to do all it could to "help calm nerves" and encourage "dialogue in a peaceful way." Invitations have thus far been sent to Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but not to Arafat.

Sharon also said he and Bush had agreed not to "surprise" each other. The comment came in response to a question about whether Bush had discussed U.S. policy on Iraq with him.

Referring to Israel's controversial policy of closing off the Palestinian areas from Israel, Sharon said he had committed himself to keeping the roads open for Palestinians. However the president should not be surprised if Israel acts to "punish the terrorists and those who send them."

According to Pazner, the purpose of the meeting was to "establish dialogue" that would lead to a good working relationship between the leaders. Although Bush and Sharon know each other personally, a working relationship can be very different, he said.

Bush spoke about his first visit to Israel in 1998, when Sharon, then a government minister, acted as his tour guide on a helicopter ride over the West Bank and Jordan Valley.

"You didn't think you were going to be the prime minister, and you probably darn sure didn't think I was going to be the president," Bush joked

Not everyone was happy about the meeting or the apparent rapport between the two men. Israeli opposition leader, Yossi Sarid of the leftist Meretz Party, criticized the encounter as "a visit without meaning."

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said she was worried about what she called "this emerging love fest."

"The United States is suffering collective amnesia about Sharon's previous crimes," she was quoted as saying.

Many Palestinians blame Sharon for the massacre - perpetrated by an allied Lebanese Christian militia - of hundreds of Palestinians at two refugee camps in 1982, when Sharon was defense minister. An Israeli inquiry subsequently held him indirectly responsible.

Pazner said he believed a friendly relationship was a "recipe" for Middle East stability. It was "extremely important" that the Arabs realize there is a strong Israel-U.S. alliance, he said.

If Israel appears weak, that might be enough in the current climate to tempt some Arab nation into an "adventure."