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THE MIDDLE EAST

U.S. Must Put Peace on Fast Track, Powell Tells Bush

Diplomacy: Amid the secretary's call for a quick endgame, officials meet at Camp David to pursue a solution for the Israelis and Palestinians.

April 21, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush huddled with his top security advisors at Camp David on Saturday to thrash out what to do about the Mideast maelstrom amid a growing perception that the crisis now boils down to the very existence of Israel alongside a Palestinian state--and finding one last formula to make that work.

The summit in the tranquillity of the Maryland woods--attended by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, CIA Director George J. Tenet and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice--grappled with the one stark new reality to emerge from Powell's recent 10-day trip to the region: The administration needs to develop a strategy to get quickly to the endgame rather than focus on more interim agreements or phases on the road to eventual peace.

"After Powell's trip, we certainly have a clearer appreciation of where all the parties stand, what is possible at the moment and what are the most promising paths to go down," said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormick.

Added a State Department official involved in the diplomacy who asked to remain anonymous: "We're at nosebleed levels about where this goes next. The administration has to make a lot of tough choices."

For the weekend retreat, according to U.S. officials, Powell brought some powerful conclusions from his trip for discussion. Most were sure to spark debate. Some might be difficult for the White House to accept, reflecting a significant gap between the White House and State Department on certain aspects of the crisis. But all have to be faced, according to both U.S. officials and Mideast experts.

First, Powell is telling the administration that Israelis and Palestinians are so estranged that, for now, the chasm separating them cannot be bridged through gradual confidence-building measures on security. The security and political phases of a peace process, outlined sequentially by two previous U.S.-orchestrated plans, should be merged. Israeli concerns about peace and stability need to parallel action on a political track that addresses the aspirations of the Palestinians--and prevents them from resorting to violence.

"It's now clear that we're beyond a phased process of peacemaking. Given the pain and rage of the past few weeks, there's no way to stop this cycle [of violence] incrementally," said Shibley Telhami, holder of the Anwar Sadat chair in peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There has to be something dramatic that will change the reality on the ground."

Palestinian Statehood Focus of Discussions

State Department officials increasingly talk of moving to the establishment of a Palestinian state, with less focus on rebuilding the shattered Palestinian Authority as a preliminary step.

"Improvement in the security situation must be linked to the second point--determined pursuit of a political solution. There can be no peace without security, but there can also be no security without peace," Powell said before leaving Jerusalem for home Wednesday.

Second, Powell has taken the firm position that Israeli troops and tanks must withdraw fully from the occupied territories--and also end the practice of search-and-arrest return raids after they have departed.

This demand might prove contentious, for the president appeared to backtrack last week, under congressional and domestic political pressure, from several earlier calls on Israel to withdraw immediately. On Thursday, he said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had "met the timetable" he outlined for pulling out. And in his Saturday radio address, Bush said only that Israel "must continue" removing its troops.

"Powell has to convince Bush that the United States can't move on any front until the Israelis are really and truly out. It's the top priority," the State Department official said. "This may not be easy because the president's getting hammered on the Hill."

Third, Powell will explain that Yasser Arafat has to be accepted as the Palestinian leader--and Sharon will have to face dealing with him, directly or indirectly, whether he wants to.

Israelis increasingly speak of expelling Arafat, a fate he narrowly avoided once already at the onset of the current offensive when Powell telephoned Sharon and said Washington would view that as a tactical mistake, according to Israeli officials.

Bush has had only tough admonitions for Arafat and appears to feel disdain for him. But in talks with four Arab leaders and the European Union before heading to Israel, Powell was repeatedly told that Arafat was elected by the Palestinians and accepted by most of the world--and that neither Israel nor the United States could alter that.

Arabs Unite Behind an Embattled Arafat

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