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The Road Map to Bush's Conversion

Six pivotal events took the president from arm's-length involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict to deep commitment to it.

June 22, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

DEAD SEA, Jordan — Like nine American presidents before him, George W. Bush has finally and fully been lured into the Arab-Israeli imbroglio. But the conversion, from keeping the issue at a distance to being deeply and personally committed to it, was a slow process that took almost two years.

U.S.-brokered mediation over the new "road map" for peace now appears on the cusp of either breakthrough or setback. Whether his administration succeeds or fails, the outcome is likely to be a big piece of Bush's legacy.

Six pivotal events have gradually transformed the president's thinking. "It's been an evolutionary thing," said a senior administration official.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks forced the issue. In a United Nations speech designed to address the terrorist threat to modern civilization, Bush became the first U.S. president to formally call for an independent Palestinian state. He spoke of it briefly, however, as a principle -- in the 34th of 41 paragraphs. It was included, after lengthy internal debate, largely in the context of terrorism and as a signal that the United States wanted justice for Muslims too, U.S. officials said.

The administration, engrossed with Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, also didn't want to follow in the footsteps of the Clinton administration, which had failed in last-ditch peace talks at Camp David. Moreover, its new foreign policy team, weighted with pro-Israel neoconservatives, didn't believe that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat was capable of making peace, the sources added.

So the pledge was basically left hanging.

The next turning point was instead an "eloquent message" and a somewhat gruesome video, both delivered by Saudi Arabia's imposing Crown Prince Abdullah during his visit to the president's ranch in April 2002, an administration official said.

The crown prince, the de facto ruler of the oil-rich country since King Fahd's debilitating stroke in 1995, was fresh from an Arab League summit where he had engineered an agreement to formally recognize Israel in exchange for the Jewish state ceding territory it occupied in the 1967 Middle East War. That diplomacy was the carrot.

The stick was a video portraying Palestinian suffering since Israel cracked down on Palestinian territories in response to the uprising. It included "images you couldn't put on TV," said a State Department official.

Abdullah "went to some trouble to acknowledge Israeli suffering and to say it has to end. But he wanted to show that the Palestinians were suffering too, that it was a humanitarian disaster for both sides. He convinced the president with a passionate and eloquent message about the need to act," the official said.

The leaders forged a strong bond, Bush told reporters after the meeting. "We share a vision."

Timing was key. With the Afghan war victory under Bush's belt and U.S. focus shifting to Iraq, Saudi Arabia had particular leverage. So did Abdullah's argument that new U.S. movement on the Arab-Israeli conflict was essential to Washington's claim that it wanted peace and stability in the world's most volatile region -- a message echoed by many other allies in the weeks that followed.

On June 24, Bush acted on a promise to Abdullah and the others to back up the pledge made at the United Nations, U.S. officials said.

In a Rose Garden speech, he dangled the prospect of a Palestinian state within three years if the Palestinians changed their leadership, introduced sweeping political reforms, wrote a new constitution, revamped security and ended violence.

"An end to occupation and a peaceful democratic Palestinian state may seem distant, but America and our partners throughout the world stand ready to help you make them possible as soon as possible," Bush said.

This offer lingered too, however, as Arafat stubbornly clung to power and the White House began using its leverage instead to press for an end to Saddam Hussein's rule in Baghdad.

Efforts to come up with a specific formula were almost derailed in December as the "quartet" of major powers -- the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia -- ironed out the steps, envisioning a final settlement by the end of 2005, U.S. officials said.

Although the other parties wanted to publicize the terms, the administration insisted that the three phases should be keep secret until the Palestinians chose a new leader and acted on other U.S. demands.

"It is a pity. It is key to maintain momentum, keep a political perspective in the process and safeguard the credibility of the quartet," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said for the EU. "Much goodwill has been invested in 'selling' the road map concept to the parties. They now expect the quartet to deliver."

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