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Drop Peace Effort, Right Urges Bush

April 03, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As President Bush struggles to define a consistent course in the Middle East, a chorus of leading conservative voices has begun loudly discouraging the administration from inserting itself into peace negotiations--and instead is urging the president to give Israel a freer hand to respond militarily to Palestinian suicide bombings.

In a series of articles over the last two weeks, conservative thinkers such as William Kristol and William J. Bennett--and leading right-leaning media such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the National Review--have used phrases such as "amateur hour," "moral confusion" and "Clintonite wishful thinking" to describe the administration's recent initiatives to breathe life into the flagging Mideast peace process.

This criticism inverts the charge from many Democrats--echoed in the editorial pages of many newspapers--that Bush hasn't done enough to encourage talks between the two sides. Instead, the conservatives are arguing that promoting talks amounts to rewarding Palestinian terrorism and risks undercutting the "Bush doctrine" of punishing states that nurture terrorists.

"There's a fundamental tension between the war on terrorism and the peace process, if the peace process means negotiating with terrorists or tolerating terrorism," argues Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard, a leading conservative magazine.

The criticism on the right has quieted somewhat since Bush condemned Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat last weekend and said he could "understand" the new Israeli offensive in the West Bank. As they do on many issues, White House aides brushed off the criticism as carping from the margins.

"I see a little bit of hubbub . . . but I don't read it as a big deal," said a senior White House official.

But the harsh conservative words for the administration's diplomatic efforts--particularly Vice President Dick Cheney's recent trip through the Mideast--suggest that as the bloody conflict continues, Bush will face sustained pressure within his party to accept Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aggressive use of force.

"I don't think there is anybody who puts much stock in talks right now," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a top conservative supporter of Israel. "Many people are saying, 'How can we tell Israel to pull back [militarily] when, if terrorists were hitting us that way, we would be going back at them hammer and tong?' "

Such comments underscore the shift in the GOP's center of gravity on the Middle East just since the inauguration of Bush, whose administration sought a more impartial stance.

"It is very hard for Bush to be seen as pressuring Israel in the classic way his father did," says Steven L. Spiegel, associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.

Indeed, the entire American debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has tilted right, especially since the collapse of the Camp David peace negotiations under President Clinton in 2000. In Israel, the rising level of Palestinian violence has strengthened the hands of those who see military action as the key to confronting the problem.

Across the American political spectrum, the differences on how to deal with the crisis today are relatively narrow--especially when compared with the call from the European Union on Tuesday for Israel to immediately withdraw its troops. But important nuances still divide the parties.

Most leading Democrats have echoed Bush in viewing the Israeli West Bank offensive as legitimate self-defense. But Democrats generally believe that Bush erred by reducing American involvement in the region last year and should be trying harder now to encourage negotiations.

Even Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), usually one of the most hawkish Democrats, told CNN on Monday that Bush should convene an international conference to begin negotiations between Israel and the Arab nations over the "vision of peace" that the Arab League endorsed in Beirut last week.

It is precisely such an intensified diplomacy that the conservatives are urging Bush to avoid.

Administration's Efforts Called 'Amateur Hour'

Cheney's trip through the region last month--which was designed to rally Arab support for action against Iraq but ended with the vice president holding out the possibility of meeting with Arafat--drew a hail of bricks from the right. In the Weekly Standard, Kristol and co-author Robert Kagan compared the trip to Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher's unsuccessful 1993 mission to rally European support for intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"The past two weeks have been amateur hour in American diplomacy," they wrote.

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