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THE MIDDLE EAST

Bush Silent as Pressure Rises to Act on Mideast

April 01, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush is under growing pressure to do something--almost anything--to defuse the intense hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, which flared anew Sunday with two more suicide bombings and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's solemn pronouncement that his country is in "a war over our home."

Unlike the many world leaders who weighed in on the mounting crisis, Bush was silent Sunday. His only public appearance was at Easter services at a Baptist church near his Texas ranch, and aides said he made no calls to Mideast leaders.

Bush's thoughts were relayed indirectly following the day's suicide bombings, which killed 17 and injured more than 40. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters that Bush "condemns these acts of terrorism. The president will not let these latest attacks deter him from the pursuit of peace."

But as European presidents, Arab princes and religious leaders on Sunday made their own appeals for peace, current and former U.S. officials questioned the lack of American action as the region plunged into deeper conflict.

Perhaps the most poignant words came from an ailing Pope John Paul II, who denounced the "horror and despair" that have converted the holy lands into a war zone. Using his annual Easter message to urge international intervention to end the bloodshed, the pontiff said, "No one can remain silent and inactive, no political or religious leader."

Many had tough words for the Bush administration. At home, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served in the Carter administration that orchestrated the first Mideast peace accord, between Israel and Egypt in 1978, said U.S. policy in recent months reflected "strategic incoherence."

Brzezinski also faulted the Bush administration for responding only to the "outrage" of terrorism, and not to a simultaneous offer of peace made at an Arab League summit in Beirut last week.

U.S. Should Lay Out 'Concept of Peace'

"Three days ago, we had an outrage, the bombing [of a Passover Seder], but we had a moment of historic opportunity--the proposal made by the Arabs, for the first time in 50 years . . . to recognize Israel and to live with it in peace. The United States has seized on the outrage. It is not exploiting the opportunity. And that is a major strategic shortcoming," he said on ABC's "This Week."

Since the Israelis and Palestinians have failed to forge a peace on their own, the Bush administration should now lay out a "concept of peace"--the "fair components" for a final settlement--to get the process back on track, he added.

No progress can be expected without U.S. action, said former Clinton National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, who helped craft an accord between Israel and Jordan in 1994. All American presidents during the last three decades have understood that "the very act of American engagement here is extraordinarily important."

"We have to put some political chips on the table. And every American president since Nixon has understood this. Vice President [Dick] Cheney said it very clearly last week: Nothing is going to happen without us. We have to get engaged in this--not simply in admonishments and condemnations, but by putting some real effort here," Berger said on "This Week."

The administration was besieged Sunday with other suggestions from both Republican and Democratic legislators.

The United States should propose a political settlement "to give some hope to these 18-year-olds [the suicide bombers] who are really just posing a threat which can't be stopped," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Specter, who met last week with several Mideast leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, said Washington should also move "aggressively" concerning Arab countries that may be financing Palestinian extremists.

The White House should initiate "much bolder moves," including dispatching Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, to take the U.S. mediation efforts above the level of U.S. special envoy Anthony C. Zinni, said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).

"I think it's time, with all respect to Gen. Zinni, that the president ask Secretary Powell, who has such great stature throughout the world, to go to the Middle East," Lieberman said on "Fox News Sunday."

Lieberman compared the Palestinians' suicide bombings with the actions of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I fear that a fanatical group of extremist terrorists has hijacked the very legitimate goal of Palestinian statehood," said Lieberman, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Democrats' vice presidential candidate in 2000. "The terrorists that are carrying out suicide bombings against Israeli civilians are cut from the same cloth as the 19."

'Something Dramatic' Needs to Be Done

The United States should offer a comprehensive peace plan that embraces all Arab countries, said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"I think there needs to be something dramatic done, and that means the president has to step up his involvement," Biden said on "Face the Nation."

There is even growing debate about a role for U.S. troops in the event of a final settlement.

"I wouldn't put American troops against the will of the parties, because they would become engaged in combat. But I would certainly be prepared to offer American military presence to monitor and guarantee a settlement," Brzezinski said.

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