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Hawks Dominate Debate on U.S. Policy in Region

Diplomacy: Within the political establishment, Bush draws fire for calling on Sharon to pull Israeli forces out of the West Bank.


WASHINGTON — Israel's defiance of a call by President Bush to withdraw from the West Bank has prompted an unexpected political reaction in America: a backlash against Bush for issuing the demand at all.

In the last week, leading Democrats such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have joined conservative Republicans in denouncing Bush's call for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to end military operations against the Palestinians.

Many analysts believe that the uproar on the home front has contributed to Bush's muted protest of Sharon's defiance. That pattern continued Wednesday, when the president included only five words on an Israeli withdrawal in his speech at the Virginia Military Institute.

The domestic criticism could also signal difficulties for the White House in advancing any peace process viewed as pressuring Sharon or legitimizing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

"This is a very smart White House politically . . . and I think they recognize there is not as much maneuvering room as State Department bureaucrats may think there is," said Gary Bauer, who ran against Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries and organized a pro-Israel letter from social conservatives last week.

More traditional voices in the foreign policy establishment, such as Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), have begun to argue that there is no military solution to the Israel-Palestinian confrontation. Yet they have been largely drowned out by demands from others in both parties that Bush offer virtually unreserved support for the Israeli offensive.

"The pressure is almost exclusively from the hawkish side," said one White House aide.

Recent polls indicate that public opinion about the proper U.S. role in the conflict is more ambivalent, with widespread hostility toward Palestinian terrorist attacks mitigated by skepticism about the Sharon government's commitment to peace.

Surveys by both CBS and Gallup Organization found that between three and five times as many Americans who responded sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians in the conflict. An overwhelming majority agreed that Arafat was not doing all he could to end the violence.

Yet doubts about Israel's course were also evident. In the CBS survey, nearly half of Americans polled said they doubted the Israeli government wanted peace enough to make real concessions for it.

By comparison, virtually no national political leaders have criticized the Israeli offensive.

The U.S. politicians most intimately identified with the peace camp in Israel have been restrained in their comments. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), for instance, has simply called on Sharon to "respect the dignity and human rights of ordinary, innocent Palestinian civilians," rather than issue an unequivocal call for withdrawal.

The dominant voices have been those criticizing Bush for urging Sharon, in an April 4 speech at the White House, to end the military offensive.

Bush came under immediate fire from foreign policy thinkers known as the neo-conservatives. That group, composed mostly of Jewish and Roman Catholic intellectuals such as William Kristol and William J. Bennett, argues that Israel is responding to terror in the same way the United States did after Sept. 11. It is hypocritical for Bush to tell Israel to stop, they say.

They also maintain that it undermines the "Bush doctrine"--which states that the United States will treat any government that harbors terrorists as a terrorist--for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to meet with Arafat as he did in the Middle East, or consider him a potential negotiating partner.

The neo-conservatives soon were joined by religious conservatives, who have become an increasingly important pro-Israeli force within the GOP. A group of leading religious conservatives, including Bauer and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, urged Bush in their letter to "end the pressure on . . . Sharon so that he has the time necessary to complete the mission he has undertaken."

Democratic and Republican senators also entered the fray, sending Bush a letter late last week that echoed the statement from the Christian conservatives.

Its signers included liberals such as Clinton, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), as well as Republican moderates Susan Collins of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

Last weekend at the Florida state Democratic Party convention in Orlando, Lieberman and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) received loud applause in denouncing Bush's pressure on Sharon.

Will Marshall, executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank, said the administration's conservative and Democratic critics may part ways down the road because the Democrats generally believe that the United States must eventually negotiate with Arafat--an idea that is anathema to most on the right.

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