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Bush Faces a Fork in the Road on the Way to a Mideast Solution


No issue since Sept. 11 has opened sharper divisions in Washington than President Bush's handling of the brutal conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Neoconservatives and Christian conservatives (joined by some Democratic hawks) want Bush to pass the ammunition to Ariel Sharon as the Israeli prime minister sends tanks rumbling through the West Bank. But the internationalists in both parties want Bush to restrain Sharon and push harder for a peace conference with the Arab states.

This division roughly parallels the fault lines inside the administration between the (internationalist) State Department and the centers of conservative thinking in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office. Bush often looks utterly ambivalent. His heart is usually with the conservatives. But his head tugs him toward the internationalists.

If the administration is going to regroup after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's frustrating tour through the Middle East, it will need more clarity. Bush is unlikely to set a sustainable course without choosing sides on at least five questions dividing the conservatives from the internationalists:

Is Israel's war with the Palestinians the moral equivalent of America's war against Al Qaeda? To the conservatives, Israel's struggle is not only analogous to America's war against terrorism but an extension of it. In their analysis, Israel is fighting the same forces of Islamic extremism that would harm America. Thus, they think it's not only hypocritical but also a threat to U.S. security for the administration to demand Israeli restraint. "If suicide bombings prevail in the Middle East," a group of social conservative leaders recently wrote Bush, "surely America will see such attacks on our own families and communities."

While sympathetic to the parallels between American and Israeli suffering, the internationalists believe the conservatives are stretching the comparison too far. "That is the height of simplicity," says Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.).

To the internationalists, the key difference is that the Palestinians, however reprehensible their means, have legitimate aspirations toward their own state. Accordingly, the internationalists believe that peace in the region will come only through political negotiation; the conservatives, without explicitly saying so, imply that Israel can impose a victor's peace through unrestrained military action.

Many around Bush believe his gut instinct is to see the Israeli struggle against terrorism as largely equivalent to our own. Yet Bush also appears to have accepted the internationalists' conclusion that the conflict, at bottom, revolves around a political dispute over statehood for which there is no purely military solution.

Must peace in Israel precede war in Iraq? The internationalists believe it would be like pouring gasoline on a house fire to attack Iraq while Israel and the Palestinians are clawing at each other. "We cannot press forward on a regime change in Iraq with the fires burning in Israel, or we . . . will risk finding ourselves isolated, Israel isolated," Hagel says.

To the conservatives, that's exactly backward. They argue that peace in Israel won't be possible until the United States removes Saddam Hussein--and demonstrates to the Arab world its commitment to uprooting terrorism. The theory is that such a show of resolve would convince "the Palestinians that they had no choice but to talk to Israel," as a Wall Street Journal editorial put it.

All the effort the administration has devoted to reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process suggests it fears the internationalists are right. But intimates believe that Bush accepts enough of the conservative logic that it isn't likely he'll wait forever for calm in Israel before moving against Iraq.

Can we negotiate with Yasser Arafat? The conservatives say Arafat is a terrorist, and under the Bush doctrine, the United States should cut off all contact with him. "Does President Bush still believe Yasser Arafat is a man with whom we can do business?" William Kristol and Robert Kagan, two leading neoconservatives, wrote recently. "The president will not find a way out of the wilderness until he finally realizes the answer is no."

The internationalists say that, while Arafat may be odious, no peace process is plausible today without him. Bush again seems torn between head and heart. The passion in Bush's denunciations of Arafat probably signals the president's deepest feelings. But Bush still allowed Powell to meet with the Palestinian leader. Even so, it's clear that Bush wants to reduce Arafat's influence by encouraging a greater role for other Arab nations in peace talks.

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