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THE MIDDLE EAST

Suicide Attacks Put Brakes on Bush's Plan

Diplomacy: The U.S. is reviewing its idea of an interim Palestinian state in light of the violence and the initial Mideast reaction to the concept.

June 20, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's proposal to jump-start the deadlocked Middle East peace process was put on hold Wednesday, as the White House acknowledged that the plan is becoming a victim of the new spate of suicide bombings.

The president had been expected to call for creation of an interim Palestinian state in a midweek speech. But two deadly suicide bombings in Israel in less than two days, as well as the initial reaction from Middle East leaders to Bush's idea, have sparked further scrutiny of the concept and its key details by the administration, according to U.S. officials.

Bush met Wednesday with his top national security team for further discussions on the plan, the officials said.

"It's obvious that the immediate aftermath [of the suicide bombings] is not the right time" to unveil the peace plan, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. "The president wants to give a speech at a time when it will have the maximum impact to bring the maximum prospects for peace to the region, and the president will make that determination about what that time is."

Bush could still give the speech within the next few days, possibly Monday, administration sources said. But there is a possibility that he will wait until after a summit in Canada next week of the Group of 8 major industrialized nations, U.S. officials said. Waiting until after the G-8 would give Bush a chance to discuss his plan privately with key allies at the meeting--and perhaps gain their support for it.

The major factor determining the speech's timing might be what happens in the region in the next few days. Israel has asked for at least a temporary end to the violence before the United States makes any move, according to U.S. and Middle East officials.

The latest attacks have had "a big effect" on Bush, said a well-placed U.S. official who requested anonymity. "In the wake of the bombings, he's coming out more forcefully on Israel's behalf."

The language from the White House on Wednesday reflected Bush's deep anger and frustration with the Palestinian Authority and its failure to rein in extremists, particularly among its own factions, officials added.

"This is not the time to be doing anything that could possibly be interpreted as a reward for the Palestinians' behavior, because they continue to fail at their basic assignment to curtail the violence," said the well-placed source.

The White House had been calling on Israel to curtail the military crackdown it launched in Palestinian areas of the West Bank this year. But on Wednesday, following Tuesday's bombing of a bus in Jerusalem that killed the attacker and 19 other people, the administration expressed its understanding of Israel's retaliatory policy that included seizing additional Palestinian territory.

"The president understands Israel's right to self-defense, particularly in the wake of an attack of this severity," Fleischer said.

Last week, the administration was drawing up details for a peace plan that called for creating an interim Palestinian state as a preliminary step to a permanent one.

The latest draft of the proposal calls for creating a state with "provisional" borders. It could be declared this year or early next year, depending on how quickly Palestinians moved to improve security in the region and adopt political reforms, administration officials said.

Discussing the change in phrasing and other details of the plan, a State Department official said: "To call it an interim state lends the air of officialdom and seems to bless the usual suspects who are likely to be put in positions of authority."

The timing for creation of the new state would be "performance-driven," said an administration official who requested anonymity. Once declared, the state would then engage in negotiations with Israel on the thorny issues of final borders, control of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees.

The administration hopes that political reforms will open up a Palestinian system that has been dominated by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and bring new faces into government who are more willing to take the tough decisions needed to make a final peace with Israel.

A major issue Bush discussed Wednesday with his national security team was whether to propose a timeline for a final settlement, officials said.

Palestinian mediator Nabil Shaath, who met with National Security Council and State Department officials this week, proposed one year of negotiations and one year of implementation.

Israel wants no deadlines and a step-by-step approach that does not begin until its security is guaranteed.

The White House is also still working on the issue of final borders--and how to deal with the demand by Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world that the eventual state include all land Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East War and still holds, with only slight modifications. In the current political climate, that would almost certainly be rejected by the more conservative elements in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet and Likud Party.

Shaath indicated Wednesday that the Palestinians might reject a proposal that does not hold out the prospect of an eventual state that extends the current territory under control of the Palestinian Authority--roughly 40% of the West Bank and two-thirds of the Gaza Strip--to all of the land conquered in the 1967 war.

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