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Bush's Plan Elicits Skepticism Among Arabs

Speech: Critics assail what they see as a call for Arafat's ouster. U.S. allies, such as Egypt, seek a specific strategy for achieving peace.

June 26, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — One point in President Bush's Middle East speech that had many Arabs screaming mad Tuesday was his call for a new Palestinian leadership as a precondition for the creation of a Palestinian state.

"How dare Bush give conditions like this?" asked Farid Zahran, head of an Egyptian publishing house and organizer of a popular committee to support the Palestinian uprising. "To change leadership, how dare he?"

But was Bush, who did not mention Yasser Arafat by name in his Monday address, actually calling for the Palestinian Authority president's ouster? Not if you ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"Bush's speech includes nothing calling for toppling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but it rather referred to the need to restructure the Palestinian National Authority," Mubarak said.

When Bush stood in the Rose Garden on Monday and delivered his long-awaited peace initiative, he tried to outline a way to end 21 months of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians. But if he thought that his chief obstacle was overcoming Israeli occupation forces and Palestinian suicide bombers, the reaction among Arab nations to his speech illustrated the many different agendas in the region that he will also have to confront.

Generally, those states that need or want calm in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, saw a speech that supported the Palestinians' right to self-determination. Those states that believe current peace plans run counter to their national interests, such as Syria, saw Bush as simply echoing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's agenda.

What Bush's speech didn't do, and this was a point that even his supporters in Arab nations emphasized, was lay out a specific strategy for achieving peace. The speech provided general markers, such as calling for a Palestinian state within three years, but none of the details sought by Arab policymakers.

There is a good deal of skepticism about the Bush plan because it comes on the heels of the Saudi peace initiative, the Egyptian-Jordanian peace initiative, the Tenet plan, the Mitchell plan and the 1993 Oslo accords and the 1991 international peace conference in Madrid--to name a few of the efforts that have been trumpeted, only to see the violence continue.

Mubarak, for example, said Egypt is hoping for a visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "to expound how this speech could be put into force." The Egyptian leader said his nation is open to helping reform Palestinian institutions, "but we need to see what is the plan."

The greatest difficulty for Bush will be working out a sequence of events acceptable to both sides, observers throughout the region say. Even if Arabs are willing--and many are reluctant--to accept the conditions Bush placed on the Palestinians for statehood, no one thinks that they can be fulfilled before an Israeli military withdrawal. At the least, observers here say, they need to be done simultaneously.

"If he keeps the [preconditions] and says before we do anything for the Palestinians the violence must stop--while the Palestinian Authority is surrounded by tanks, while Arafat is a prisoner--who will do that?" said Taher Masri, a former Jordanian ambassador to the Arab League. "Nobody will remove Arafat in such a position."

Still, when it came to assessing Bush's remarks, it looked as though individual agendas set the tone. Syria, for example, has over the last few months repeatedly made it clear that it does not support an immediate end to the crisis, at least until its issues--such as return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War--are resolved. And reaction in Syria, which Bush singled out in his speech as harboring Palestinian organizations that Washington considers terrorists, was heavily critical of the speech.

"I didn't expect the Bush speech to be any good, but I didn't expect it to be this bad," said Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a political science professor at the University of Damascus in the Syrian capital. "It's much worse than I imagined."

Conversely, Jordan and Egypt--the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel and two states eager to keep calm their own populations, which are pro-Palestinian, for internal security reasons--saw the speech favorably.

"Bush talks about ending occupation, establishing a Palestinian state, going back to the borders of September 2000, reconstruction of Palestine, democratization--all these are basic elements that Palestinians themselves demanded to happen," said Masri, the former Jordanian ambassador.

In Saudi Arabia, where the government has been trying to walk a fine line between pushing for a peaceful settlement while not inflaming strong anti-American, pro-Palestinian sentiments at home, there was mixed reaction.

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