Bush vows to pursue peace, but difficult decisions loom

U.S. seen as needing to get tough on Israelis, Arab leaders or Arafat

April 18, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration struggled to come up with new diplomatic initiatives yesterday after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's high-profile Middle East peace mission failed to achieve any of its goals.

"We're going to assess where we are," a senior Bush administration official said as Powell flew back to Washington.

In his 10-day mission, Powell had tried not only to produce a cease-fire but also to press the warring sides toward a settlement that would create a Palestinian state and win acceptance for Israel in the Arab world.

But as he left the region yesterday, the secretary of state had not cracked the diplomatic logjam that confronted him upon arrival - the Palestinian demand for an Israeli troop withdrawal from West Bank cities before the Palestinians would act to halt terrorism and violence.

President Bush pledged yesterday to sustain his efforts to bring peace to the region, which he launched in a speech April 4, after having long resisted direct involvement in Middle East diplomacy. But he noted the daunting challenges ahead.

"We're confronting hatred that is centuries old, disputes that have lingered for decades," the president said in a speech at Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington. "But I want you to know, I will continue to lead toward a vision of peace."

Bush chided both sides in the bloody conflict but stressed the role that Arab leaders must play in discouraging Palestinian terrorism. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Bush declared, must "help confront terrorism in the Middle East," by halting incitement and the funding of militant groups.

Referring to suicide bombers, Bush said: "All parties must say clearly that a murderer is not a martyr; he or she is just a murderer."

The president signaled that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis would not deter him from pursuing his broader war on terror or from confronting what Bush has called the "axis of evil" - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - rogue nations seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Facing the dispiriting results of Powell's trip, however, Bush confronts tough decisions.

In a paper last week, Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote that on Powell's return, "the president will face a choice: get tough on Arab leaders for failing to rise to the test of leadership; finally get tough with [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat and break off ties ... or get tough on the Israelis."

Bush's dilemma is likely to reopen deep divisions between the State Department, which supports continued efforts to revive a shattered peace process, and the Defense Department, which views such efforts as futile and favors concentrating on a campaign to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Parts of the administration would take the results of the Powell mission as a green flag for trying to stop further engagement and a diplomatic process," said Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, a U.S. group aligned with the peace movement in Israel.

Powell, putting the best face on the results of his intensive efforts, said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had pledged to pull Israeli forces back from most West Bank cities within days.

Sharon has refused to withdraw from Ramallah, where Israeli forces have kept Arafat confined, until Palestinians hand over suspects in the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister, or from Bethlehem, where wanted Palestinian militants are holed up at the Church of the Nativity.

If there is a significant withdrawal by Israelis in the West Bank, U.S. officials say, Palestinians are prepared to work with American and Israeli officials to prevent new acts of terror against Israelis.

The White House is prepared to dispatch CIA Director George J. Tenet to the region next week to push these joint efforts forward, though no decision has been made.

And Powell is expected to press the case for an international peace conference that would follow a cease-fire, bringing together Israelis, Palestinians and key officials from Arab states. The conference would be intended to point the way toward a peace agreement that would create a Palestinian state in exchange for broad acceptance of Israel by the Arab world.

But the White House greeted the plan warily.

"The secretary has heard a lot of ideas about what such a conference might do, and obviously the United States isn't going to commit to anything until the president of the United States has had a chance to think about it," a senior administration official told reporters on Bush's plane yesterday.

The Arab world views the idea of an international peace conference with deep skepticism. Several Arab leaders demanded yesterday that the United States pressure Israel to complete its withdrawal from the West Bank as a top priority. In a sign of frustration and disappointment with Powell's failure to do this, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the region, canceled a meeting with the secretary in Cairo yesterday.

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