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Maneuvering Over 'Road Map' for the Mideast

May 26, 2003|Ronald Brownstein

The politics of Middle East peace have become almost as complex in the United States as they are in the region itself.

In the last month, President Bush has displayed more commitment and creativity in advancing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians than at any point in his presidency. And that movement is kicking up swirls of political maneuvering, not only in Tel Aviv and the West Bank, but also in the United States.

After mostly resisting pressure to involve himself more heavily in the conflict, Bush has taken a series of potentially significant steps -- if he's willing to risk a sustained commitment to them. First, in late April, his administration published the "road map" meant to guide the path toward coexistence between Israel and a peaceful, independent Palestinian state.

Then this month, in a commencement address at the University of South Carolina, he offered the Arab world a visionary prospect of social revival through the establishment of a free-trade zone with the United States that could seed economic opportunity in nations now parched of it.

And in the last week, he has bolstered Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas by telephoning him and pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- who had resisted -- into accepting what Sharon called "the steps" of the road map.

White House officials had always promised that the administration would invest more energy if the Palestinians replaced Yasser Arafat with a leader Bush believed was committed to fighting terrorism; Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has passed that test. Yet even so, Bush's willingness to engage the Palestinians and nudge Sharon is a surprise.

The president has never shown much stomach before for confronting Sharon, whose Likud government has staunch support among two key elements of Bush's coalition: Christian conservatives and the neoconservative foreign policy thinkers -- mostly Jewish and Catholic -- who have the president's ear. Last year, when Sharon ignored Bush's demands to withdraw Israeli forces from the West Bank, the president backed down, amid warnings from both Democrats and Republicans not to push too hard.

Now Bush's escalating engagement has triggered a series of tremors in U.S. politics that culminated last week in the unlikely spectacle of some of the most liberal Jewish political activists in America moving to defend Bush.

The first step in the chain reaction came last month when majorities in the House and Senate signed letters to Bush cautioning him against moving too quickly to implement the road map.

Though the letters never explicitly called for derailing the process, they largely reflected the Sharon position that Israel shouldn't be asked to make concessions until the new Palestinian leadership had moved further to confront terrorists. "Actions -- not just promises -- are necessary for real progress," the Senate letter insisted.

That sounds reasonable. Yet some dovish Jewish activists consider that formulation a code for undermining the road map. They argue that Abbas can never achieve the political support he needs to truly crack down on terrorists without evidence that his approach is producing progress toward an independent Palestinian state. In effect, the activists believe the demands reflected in the letters from Congress are designed to establish conditions Abbas can never meet -- which would free Sharon from ever moving toward the two-state solution the road map envisions.

In the American Jewish left, the congressional letters were seen as a warning to Bush not to lean too hard on Sharon. "Those letters were designed to tie the president's hands," says Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a liberal Jewish group. Though the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the immensely powerful Israel lobby, didn't claim credit for the letters, most activists see its fingerprints on them.

That congressional offensive inspired last week's head-spinning response: a letter to all the Democratic presidential contenders that was a shot across the bow from dozens of prominent liberal Jews -- from Los Angeles activist Stanley Sheinbaum and actor Richard Dreyfuss to New York mogul and Clinton intimate Alan Patricof. "As long as the administration remains actively engaged in an effort to implement the road map," wrote the group, organized by the Israel Policy Forum, "we ask you not to put obstacles in the way of the president's Mideast peacemaking policies."

That would not seem an imminent danger. Without exception, the Democratic presidential candidates have criticized Bush for doing too little, not too much, to advance peace in Middle East.

But the letter's signers are worried that if Bush does continue to pressure Sharon, the Democrats would be tempted to criticize the president from the right, in the hope of courting Jewish support.

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