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Bush's Mideast Policy on Hold

President blames 'old guard' Palestinians for impasse. Experts see a disengaged stance.

October 29, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush made clear Tuesday that his administration's peace efforts in the Middle East are on hold, blaming the "old guard" Palestinian leadership for failing to halt suicide attacks on Israel.

During a Rose Garden news conference, Bush recalled that former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas had pledged to fight terrorism, and the president expressed regret at Abbas' ouster by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"I do not see the same commitment to fight terror from the old guard," Bush said, referring to Arafat, who is president of the Palestinian Authority. "It's going to be very hard to move a peace process forward until there's a focused effort by all parties to assume their responsibilities." Bush's remarks were his most direct acknowledgment so far that the Mideast peace plan he supports, known as the "road map," has reached a roadblock and perhaps a dead end.

The president's remarks confirmed what many Middle East analysts already had concluded.

"They've made a decision that this is not going to be a priority, and if it's not going to be a priority, it's not going to happen," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland.

"It's clear the administration is disengaged, and the administration will stay disengaged," said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They don't want to put any political investment in it because we're in an election year."

Bush criticized both sides for the stalemate. In regard to Israel, the president expressed dismay at the continued growth of settlements in Palestinian territory. He described Israel's construction of a security barrier that extends into the West Bank as a "problem," noting, "There is a difference between security and land acquisition. And we have made our views clear on that issue."

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said those words signal to Israel that Bush does not necessarily object to the security fence, depending on where it is built. "The issue is no longer the fence, it's the route," Makovsky said.

Although Bush blamed both sides for the failure of the peace process, Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University in New York, said White House policy is in effect one-sided because it does not address violence by Israel against Palestinians.

"The president talks as though 3,000 Israelis have been killed and only 900 Palestinians, when in fact it's the other way around," Khalidi said.

During the news conference, Bush responded to a question about whether his policies are biased toward Israel by reprising a past statement.

"I was the first president ever to have advocated a Palestinian state. I did so at the United Nations. I also informed them that in order for a Palestinian state to go forward ... there must be a focused, concerted effort to destroy the terrorist networks who are trying to prevent a Palestinian state from emerging, which requires good, strong, capable leadership," Bush said.

Bush insisted that he has the greatest respect for Muslims, noting that he would host an iftar dinner at the White House on Tuesday -- a reference to the evening meal breaking the daily fast observed by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

"Our war is not against the Muslim faith ... ," Bush said. "We've got to fight off the imagery of a society which condemns entire swaths of people because of the acts of a few -- which is not the way we are." But Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said pledges to support a Palestinian state and assertions of respect for Islam do not make up for the administration's policies.

"There's a disconnect between the rhetoric and the actions," Hooper said.

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