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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bush Attacks White House Mideast Peace Strategy

Politics: Texas governor tells Jewish lobbying group that Israel is being unduly pressured for a settlement. Gore aides denounce remarks as 'reckless.'

May 23, 2000|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Republican George W. Bush on Monday lashed out at the Clinton administration's handling of the Mideast peace process, demonstrating his willingness to fight both Vice President Al Gore and the president in his bid for the White House.

Appearing before the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the country, the presumed Republican nominee accused Clinton of hobbling Israel's ability to negotiate with the Palestinians by insisting on an unrealistic schedule for peace.

"In recent times, Washington has tried to make Israel conform to its own plans and timetables," the Texas governor told an audience of more than 1,000 at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "But this is not the path to peace."

The Gore camp immediately branded the remarks "reckless" and "irresponsible," saying Bush was playing politics with delicate peace negotiations. Clinton officials denied putting undue pressure on anyone.

"It really raises questions of experience," said Chris Lehane, a Gore spokesman.

Although Bush's remarks themselves were not entirely new--he has made similar comments on the hustings--they show how the presidential race has turned multilateral recently with Bush the target of tag-team attacks by both his presumed Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, and Clinton.

While it is not unusual for a president to campaign for his vice president, Clinton has upped the rhetoric the past few weeks. Clinton administration spokesmen have joined Gore in attacking Bush on everything from gun control to Social Security.

Though Bush never mentioned Clinton by name, his remarks on Monday were clearly directed at the Clinton-Gore administration, which has staked much of its foreign policy legacy on securing a lasting peace in Israel.

Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for Bush, said the governor was dismayed by Israeli complaints that the Clinton administration had tried to impose artificial deadlines on the peace process during the 1998 Wye River negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

There would be no such deadlines, Bush said, if he were elected president.

Bush also chided the administration for setting a "clear and bad example" by supporting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak over Benjamin Netanyahu during last year's elections.

Bush repeated his vow to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a favorite pledge among politicians courting the American Jewish vote.

"Americans should not interfere in Israel's democratic process," Bush said to loud applause.

Bush also said that Iran should be held responsible for the treatment of the 13 Iranian Jews imprisoned in that country on espionage charges.

Clinton officials rejected Bush's accusations, saying Clinton had made peace in the Middle East one of his top priorities.

"We have certainly impressed upon all sides in the course of the Middle East peace process that there is a sense of urgency to this," said P.J. Crowley, a Clinton spokesman. "But . . . progress itself and the timetable of progress has always been for the parties themselves to decide."

Gore officials said the vice president had played an important role during the Wye negotiations, and had proved himself capable of dealing with complex foreign issues.

Bush, they said, had not shown similar ability.

"You should not try to score partisan points in an election by making reckless charges and injecting yourself into the peace process," Lehane said.

Gore himself has tempered some of the stronger stands he took while wooing the Jewish vote in New York during his campaign for the presidency in 1988.

Then, Gore also supported the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem. Now, as a result of the delicate nature of the ongoing peace talks, Gore has backed away from any such commitment should he become president.

"The future status of Jerusalem should be decided by the parties" involved in the negotiations, Lehane said. "This is part of the ongoing peace discussions."

The Gore camp's criticisms follow one of the dominant lines of attack against Bush, to paint him as too inexperienced in foreign affairs to be trusted with the presidency.

But Bush's remarks--the first dedicated solely to a discussion of the Middle East--demonstrated the governor's increasing comfort in talking foreign policy.

Bush plans to spend much of this week focusing on foreign policy and national trade issues, on the heels of a trade policy speech in Seattle last week supporting the upcoming vote on China's trading status.

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