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THE WORLD

Democrats, GOP Skeptical of Bush Mideast Peace Plan

June 21, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration continues debating a proposal to create a provisional Palestinian state, signs are mounting that the idea could face a rocky domestic reception.

While some experts on peace negotiating in the region--such as former President Clinton and his chief Middle East envoy, Dennis B. Ross--have praised the notion, initial reactions from others indicate that the idea could face a cross-fire of resistance from Republicans and Democrats.

Even before Bush finalizes his proposal, conservatives are charging that the president would be rewarding terrorism if he endorses a provisional Palestinian state in the wake of the latest suicide bombings against Israelis. "It gives momentum to the terrorists by allowing them to say we got this [recognition] by doing things our way," said Gary J. Schmitt, executive director of the Project for a New American Century, a conservative foreign policy think tank.

Democratic officials and analysts worry that the idea doesn't directly address enough Israeli or Palestinian concerns to change the behavior of either side in the conflict--especially because Bush previously has indicated that he would support a permanent state for the Palestinians if they stop terrorism.

"I just fail to see how [the idea] moves anything anywhere," Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House minority leader, said in an interview.

White House officials have expressed some frustration at such remarks, arguing that the final proposal will address many critics' concerns.

But the skeptical responses suggest that Bush is still caught between Arab pressure for steps to provide Palestinians greater hope of a political solution and an American leadership hostile toward any measures that seem to reward violence or legitimize Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The latest violence is complicating Bush's position by heightening resistance to any increased Palestinian autonomy--not only among Israelis but also among Israel's supporters in Congress.

"I don't know how you create a state out of chaos in a place where terrorists are running the show," Gephardt said.

Likewise, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN this week: "How in the world could you enhance [Arafat's] status and that of the Palestinians to statehood, unless [the violence] stops?"

Beyond increased sensitivity to Palestinian terrorism after Sept. 11, political currents in both parties are creating pressures that could reduce congressional enthusiasm for Bush's eventual initiative.

Conservative Christians, a key GOP constituency, have grown more resistant to any moves they perceive as constraining Israel or rewarding the Palestinians. Meanwhile, concern that Bush's generally strong support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might open inroads for the president among American Jews is increasing pressure on Democrats to move to Bush's right on the issue, party insiders say.

"Whereas a couple of years ago, for the American Jewish community Israel was diminishing as an issue, it has reasserted itself at the top of the agenda," said a lobbyist for a leading Jewish group. "I think that it makes sense for the Democrats to not allow themselves to get outflanked on this [by Bush]."

The president was expected to announce his plan earlier this week. But he has delayed it, both because of the renewed violence in Israel and continued disagreements inside the administration over his plan's details. Senior officials told The Times that after the latest attacks, Bush has become especially determined to avoid "doing anything that can possibly be interpreted as a reward for the Palestinians' behavior."

Still, close administration observers expect the plan, when finally released, to call for the creation of a provisional Palestinian state with temporary borders--once the Palestinian Authority has undertaken sweeping reforms and moved to stop terrorist attacks on Israel. Under the proposal, negotiations would be deferred on the underlying issues--such as permanent borders and the right of return for Palestinian refugees--that derailed the search for a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement during the Clinton administration.

The idea's supporters believe it might spark renewed progress at a time when the two sides are too bloodied and embittered to reach a permanent agreement.

In a speech Monday to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Clinton said a provisional state could help break the stalemate if it is tied to Arab recognition of Israel and a clear timeline for resolving the remaining issues necessary for a final agreement.

In effect, he said, this approach would lay out the ultimate benefits to both sides and "fill in the blanks over a specified period of time."

That may be the most the United States can accomplish at a moment when tensions are so high, Clinton argued. "I just think it's going to be hard to do more than that, because of the lack of trust and the political differences among the parties," he said.

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