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THE MIDDLE EAST | NEWS ANALYSIS

Escalation Pushes Bush Onto a Limb

April 05, 2002|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For more than 14 months, President Bush tried to steer clear of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a seemingly endless tangle that has consumed serious diplomatic energy from every president since Richard Nixon.

But conflict avoidance didn't work. The crisis got worse, not better, and was threatening to sink Bush's effort to build a worldwide coalition against terrorism and "rogue" nations such as Iraq.

So Bush changed course. The positions he outlined in his long statement in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday weren't new; the United States has supported an independent Palestinian state since President Clinton's abortive peacemaking effort in 2000 and a secure Israel since the Jewish state's creation in 1948.

What was new, however, was Bush's willingness to put his own influence on the table, and to make progress toward Arab-Israeli peace a measure of his presidency's success.

"The most important part of this was the president of the United States coming out solidly committed to doing something about this problem," said Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt. "He's sending the secretary of State out in his own name. That means the secretary goes armed, for a change."

To optimists such as Walker, Bush's personal involvement means that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will feel compelled to halt his offensive against Palestinian towns in the West Bank and that moderate Palestinian leaders will be emboldened to speak out against the wave of suicide bombings that touched off the current crisis.

To pessimists such as Walter Cutler, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the chances of success appear slim but better than the alternative. "It's fraught with risks," Cutler said of the administration's new course, "but we have to take them."

Bush administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, agreed with both assessments. The president had to act now, they said, because the conflict was threatening to burst the bounds of the current conflict and damage U.S. interests in the entire Middle East.

In private talks during the last few days, one official said, an emissary from Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah warned that the United States would "never again get the use of any military base against Iraq" if it didn't stop the fighting in the West Bank. At the same time, administration officials feared that the unrest would spread, affecting friendly governments such as Egypt and Jordan and creating a wider crisis.

"There were risks that those regimes would be destabilized in some way or, more to the point, that they would be forced to cut or break off relations with Israel," a senior official said. "Obviously, Israel's long-term security requires peace with its neighbors. And there was concern . . . about the long-term bitterness that was being engendered in the Palestinian people--that it will generate more suicide bombers, not less.

"We're at a tipping point in Arab opinion generally," the official said. "We want to bring the Arab countries onto our side in the war on terrorism rather than have them go on the side of the terrorists."

Last weekend, in off-the-cuff remarks at his Texas ranch, Bush exhibited what appeared to be a deeply felt sympathy toward Israel in its battle against terrorism and, to a lesser degree, concern for the Palestinians.

But Bush's long policy statement Thursday, hammered out after days of negotiations inside the administration, was painstakingly evenhanded. It carefully assigned equal weight to the statehood of Israel and the statehood of a future Palestine.

But it also tried to fit the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict into a more recent American template for discerning friend from foe: Henceforth, anyone on either side who decisively renounces terrorism is a U.S. ally.

Thus the administration said it would rely heavily on Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to pressure Palestinian leaders to turn their followers away from suicide bombings.

Bush called on Palestinians to move beyond the indecision of their longtime leader, Yasser Arafat--and implicitly urged them to replace the 72-year-old former guerrilla if he doesn't embrace a compromise with Israel.

"The chairman of the Palestinian Authority has not consistently opposed or confronted terrorists," Bush said. "The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making."

Instead, Bush called on "responsible Palestinian leaders . . . [to] step forward and show the world that they are truly on the side of peace. The choice and the burden will be theirs."

"I expect better leadership, and I expect results."

A senior administration official said later that the United States still believes that it must negotiate with the Palestinians through Arafat, at least for the time being.

"Chairman Arafat is who the Palestinian people still look to as their leader," he said. "And it is simply not practical to say he isn't there when he is there and he is looked to by the Palestinian people."

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