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A Vision for Peace--After 28 Drafts

Speech: Bush's call for new Palestinian leadership followed 18th version--and reports that Arafat had paid a group linked to attacks.


WASHINGTON — The speech was drafted, redrafted and then worked over again and again--28 times in all before President Bush finally delivered his vision for achieving peace in the Middle East.

The drafts varied widely. Version 11 opened with a dramatic--some officials later called it inflammatory--description of a young girl in a Jewish settlement hunted down and killed by a Palestinian gunman. U.S. diplomats in the Middle East urgently pressed for changes to the anecdote. Revisions were made. Then it disappeared completely, according to U.S. officials who monitored the evolution of the speech Bush gave Monday in the Rose Garden.

The president's most provocative and controversial idea--to abandon Yasser Arafat and call for new Palestinian leadership--didn't show up in the speech until late last week, even though the idea had permeated the often intense debate among Bush's foreign policy team for weeks.

In the end, the president's deep feelings about the war on terrorism, his own morality and the swift U.S. success in ending the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan heavily shaped the new initiative--almost as much as the situation on the ground in the Middle East, according to U.S. officials.

"This speech would have been dramatically different if it had been made before Sept. 11," said a State Department official who saw several versions. Officials willing to discuss the speech requested anonymity.

What happened between the speech's first version and the last tells a great deal about Bush's world view, his decision-making and the divisions within his administration, U.S. officials say.

"This speech is very much a product of how the president looks at the world, based on two core ideas. The first is the idea of freedom wrapped into human rights, democracy, economic freedom and individual potential. The second is fighting terrorism," an administration official said.

The president's imprint is reflected in the key changes that occurred during the speech's evolution, which resulted in a virtual policy reversal.

Central to the first version, drafted at the State Department, were proposals for a U.S.-hosted international conference to generate momentum so that the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority would focus on peace rather than confrontation, U.S. officials say.

But that approach faded as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld joined the debate and offered strong arguments mirroring the Israeli position that Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, is unable to make peace. Their view overpowered the approach advocated by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Increasingly, the White House's National Security Council, headed by Condoleezza Rice, took over drafting the text.

The final draft, polished by chief White House speech writer Mike Gerson and Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, had no mention of the conference. And Arafat was targeted for political retirement.

"We started the process based on a premise that there were two partners in the peace process and the efforts centered on how to get over their lack of trust," said the State Department official. "We ended up with the premise that there is only one partner and we can't move forward until we find a new second partner."

The about-face happened after version 18, the last draft seen by U.S. diplomats in the region. It had no reference to the demand for new Palestinian leadership, now the crux of Bush's plan for an independent Palestinian state and Middle East peace.

So several top U.S. envoys said they were surprised--some appalled--by what they finally heard Monday.

Some last-minute intelligence basically sealed Arafat's fate for Bush. The information reported that Arafat had authorized a payment of $20,000 to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a faction linked to his Fatah movement that has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings against Israelis, a senior administration official with Bush in Canada at this week's summit of top industrial nations confirmed Wednesday.

The information was relayed as Bush held daily deliberations with his top advisors last week. It coincided roughly with a June 19 bombing that killed seven Israelis. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for the blast, which followed by a day a bus bombing carried out by another Palestinian group that killed 19 Israelis. Both attacks visibly angered the president, U.S. officials say.

"The fact that the president was to give this speech in a context in which violence had erupted did confirm for the president--confirm for all of us--the need for a change in [Palestinian] leadership," the senior administration official said.

The intelligence reports, however, came from both Israeli and U.S. services--with somewhat different interpretations, according to well-placed sources who asked to remain anonymous. The version the president accepted reflects his mind-set--and why he opted to strike out in a new direction.

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