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THE WORLD

Bush Says America Won't Let Israel Be 'Crushed'

April 27, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CRAWFORD, Texas — One day after Saudi Arabia's crown prince prodded President Bush to do more to restrain the Israeli military, the American leader Friday stressed his commitment to the Jewish state.

"We will not allow Israel to be crushed," Bush said.

But even as he emphasized his intention to stand by the longtime U.S. ally, he repeated his demand that Israel withdraw its troops from Palestinian territory it has occupied during its recent incursion into the West Bank.

"There has been some progress, but it's now time to quit it altogether," he said. "It's time to end this."

And White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the Saudis had presented an eight-point plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of which the United States has long accepted.

Early this month, Bush demanded that Israel withdraw "without delay." That did not occur. Israel eventually pulled its forces back from some sites, including the city of Nablus and the refugee camp in Jenin. But new maneuvers have been reported, and sieges continue at Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Bush's remarks Friday reflected a delicate balancing act in dealing with a Middle East crisis he originally sought to stay out of. While Arab countries have called for his administration to get tougher with the Israelis, some Democrats and conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill have pressed for stronger declarations of U.S. support for Israel.

On Friday, the White House persuaded House Republican leaders to put aside plans for a vote next week on a resolution expressing U.S. solidarity with Israel and sharply criticizing Arafat as fomenting violence against Israeli civilians. The resolution also endorses an unspecified amount of additional U.S. aid for Israel.

Bush spoke briefly Friday with reporters at his ranch, where he had conferred with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah for several hours the day before. Bush said he and the prince, who has been Saudi Arabia's de facto leader since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, "had a good discussion about the obligations of the Arab nations" in ending the deadly conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

During the meeting, the Saudi delegation presented a paper listing eight points for resolving the crisis, Fleischer said.

The Saudis called for:

* Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory.

* An end to the Ramallah siege.

* Creation of a multinational peacekeeping force.

* Reconstruction of Palestinian areas that have recently been damaged.

* A renunciation of violence.

* Renewed efforts to bring both sides into longer-range political talks.

* An end to Israeli settlement activity in occupied territory.

* A new emphasis on implementing U.N. Resolution 242, a key Middle East measure.

Bush, in his Friday comments, sought to emphasize the efforts he had made with Abdullah to defend Israel.

"I told the crown prince that we've got a unique relationship with Israel," he said, adding that the U.S. defense of Israel is "one thing the world can count on."

"That's an important statement to make," he said. "It's a part of our foreign policy, it has been a part of our foreign policy, it will continue to be a part of our foreign policy--the Saudis understand that."

The ranch meeting reflected a new readiness by Saudi Arabia to join the U.S. effort to broker an end to the standoffs in Ramallah and Bethlehem and to renew the long-term peace process, U.S. officials said Friday.

Abdullah injected himself into the peace process last month, offering Israel full recognition by Arab nations in exchange for withdrawal from territories it occupied during the 1967 Middle East War. The Saudis promoted the plan at a meeting of Arab leaders in Beirut.

Abdullah and his delegation are remaining in the U.S. for several days while Saudi and U.S. officials continue to exchange ideas on ending the crisis.

The Saudis are particularly concerned about finding a nonviolent solution to the standoffs in Ramallah and Bethlehem and to Arafat's confinement.

In Washington, lawmakers generally have supported Bush as he moves more aggressively into Middle East diplomacy, but increasingly they are weighing in with their own views.

On Thursday, House Republican leaders scheduled a vote, to take place Tuesday, on the pro-Israel resolution sponsored by Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). They did so despite warnings by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that the measure could complicate efforts to reach out to moderate Arab states.

The resolution appeared likely to win wide support. But the vote was postponed after the White House intervention.

Lawmakers are also pressing Bush to speak out against anti-Semitism in European and Arab nations.

A letter signed by 99 senators and made public Friday urged the president "to make every effort possible to raise, at the highest level, our concerns about anti-Semitic acts in Europe and anti-Semitic portrayals in the Arab media."

The only senator who did not sign the letter was Jesse Helms (R-N. C.), who this week underwent heart surgery.

*

Times staff writers Robin Wright and Nick Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.

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