Bush ready to drive Mideast peace plan

With Abbas installed, president vows to back U.S.-European `road map'

April 30, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Having waited for more than two years as the Israeli and Palestinian death tolls mounted, President Bush is poised to enter the thicket of Middle East peacemaking, facing major obstacles in the region and wariness on Capitol Hill and leading an often divided team of advisers.

Now that Palestinians have picked a prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who considers the armed uprising a failure, Bush has promised to throw his weight behind a U.S.-European "road map" intended to end Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and launch a renewed peace process culminating in an independent Palestine co-existing with a secure Israel by 2005.

The road map will be launched with little fanfare as it is formally presented by U.S. and European envoys as early as today to Abbas, who was confirmed yesterday, and the Israeli government. But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will quickly embark on a high-profile mission to set the stage for peacemaking by visiting Syria and Lebanon this weekend.

In his first Middle East foray in more than a year, Powell will press Damascus to shut down the offices of Palestinian terror groups, close terrorist-training camps in neighboring Lebanon, which Syria controls, and prevent new attacks against Israel by Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based guerrilla group.

Once Abbas has his new government in place, Powell will return to the Middle East, probably by mid-May, to meet with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, making additional stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The White House yesterday played down the American leadership role in shepherding the Israelis and Palestinians toward the peace table and pressing for compliance with the peace plan, developed jointly by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

"Fundamentally, it still is a matter for the Israelis and the Palestinians to work together on, to resolve matters for themselves. There are many important players, but there are no more important players than the Israelis and the Palestinians. We will be at their sides to help them," presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

But the United States has placed itself in charge of overseeing implementation of the peace plan, which spells out a detailed series of steps required of Palestinians and Israelis. These steps are to begin with a crackdown by Palestinians on terror groups and conclude with a comprehensive settlement of a conflict that has sputtered or raged for the past 55 years.

Bush declared Feb. 26, "It is the commitment of our government - and my personal commitment - to implement the road map and to reach that goal" of a two-state solution.

Moreover, Bush cited the enhanced Middle East peace prospects stemming from the anticipated ouster of Saddam Hussein as one of the benefits of going to war against Iraq, saying it would deprive terror networks of Iraqi financial support and boost Palestinian reformers.

Bush's commitment was crucial to helping his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hold firm against strong domestic opposition to fighting alongside the United States in the war against Iraq.

It was also key to persuading U.S. allies in the Arab world, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to set aside their fears about the war's impact on the region and provide quiet support to the American invasion. And at a time when the United States is trying to win back trust and support throughout the region, leadership on the peace process is crucial, many regional analysts say.

"To my mind, the Arab-Israeli issue remains the prism through which the Arab world sees America," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution.

Entering office when the Palestinian intifada was in its fourth month, Bush refrained from making a strong push to end the violence, despite the entreaties of many leaders in the Arab world and Europe and Middle East professionals in the State Department.

Bush concluded that the gulf separating the hard-line Israeli government led by Sharon and the Palestinians was too wide to be bridged. Furthermore, he agreed with Sharon that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's regime was corrupt and too closely tied to terrorism to be a credible peace negotiator.

But the impediments that discouraged the president from intervening in a sustained manner during the past 25 months are still present.

Arafat, while ceding major powers over finance and security to Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, remains a force to be reckoned with on the Palestinian stage despite American and Israeli efforts to render him irrelevant.

During the two weeks leading up to yesterday's confirmation of Abbas by the Palestinian legislature, Arafat received phone calls from leaders around the world imploring him not to stand in the way.

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