Bush pressured to increase involvement in Middle East

But the latest fighting also highlights limits


WASHINGTON - The latest wave of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has left President Bush's Mideast policy in tatters.

With both sides bracing for more killing, Bush is under increasing pressure to abandon his arms-length approach to Mideast peacemaking and take a more direct role in the search for peace. At the same time, recent developments have underscored the limits of American influence.

Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ignored Bush's pleas to let Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat travel to an Arab summit in Lebanon. Arafat ignored Bush's demands for a crackdown on Palestinian terrorists. Both sides balked at U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni's efforts to engineer a cease-fire.

"We have to shift gears and move beyond what is still a rather modest effort. The U.S. has to try something bolder that speaks to both the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Philip Wilcox, a former U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem who served as the de facto American envoy to the Palestinians under President Bush's father.

"This more benign hands-off policy has been a dreadful failure."

Even some senior administration officials privately concede that their efforts at Mideast mediating started too late and have been too little, something they attribute in part to the administration's desire to avoid repeating former President Bill Clinton's failed peacemaking effort.

Wilcox contends that Bush could break the cycle of violence by forcefully backing a plan for an independent Palestinian state. Others advocate sending Secretary of State Colin L. Powell or another high-ranking administration official to the region.

Such advice is plentiful, but Bush and his advisers have shown no indication that they are contemplating a different approach. Despite the setbacks, administration officials continued to express hope that Zinni would be able to engineer a halt to the violence.

"I can assure you we're not giving up," Bush said in Dallas yesterday. "We're not going to let murderers disrupt a march to peace."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insisted that Zinni had "narrowed the differences" between the two sides before the Passover bombing altered the outlook.

In some ways, however, U.S. Middle East diplomacy has been moving backward, not forward.

In April, a committee led by former Sen. George J. Mitchell recommended a series of steps to stop the violence, rebuild trust between the two sides and resume negotiations.

Then, last summer, CIA Director George Tenet got both sides to agree to a detailed plan for a cease-fire and Israeli military withdrawal from Palestinian areas. The Tenet plan, viewed as a critical first step toward the Mitchell proposal, never went into effect.

Zinni is trying to get both sides to agree to another document, which would spell out how they will implement the Tenet plan. It is his third mission to the region.

Bernard Reich, a Middle East expert at George Washington University in Washington, said he thinks that Bush was right to avoid inserting himself between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"They're as far apart as they've ever been," he said.

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