Bush reaches out to Palestinians, Arab community

President reaffirms commitment to `just' resolution in Mideast

May 07, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush, seeking to cool Arab anger at the United States, reached out to Palestinians yesterday with a pledge to spell out in writing his commitment to a "just and durable" settlement of their decades-long conflict with Israel.

Offering to expand dialogue between the United States and Palestinians, the president also breathed new life into the Middle East "road map," a plan prepared with United Nations and European help, saying it offered the best path back to peace negotiations.

Bush made his public overture to the Palestinians after meeting yesterday with Jordan's King Abdullah II as the president continued efforts to prevent further deterioration in U.S. relations with the Arab world.

Photos showing abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners have heightened anger toward the United States throughout the Middle East. But a second source of resentment is the widespread Arab view that the Bush administration has abandoned America's traditional role as honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians.

Bush aggravated that suspicion last month when, in an exchange of documents with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he explicitly endorsed two of Israel's chief aims in its conflict with the Palestinians: a desire to hold on to certain large Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and a refusal to let Palestinian refugees return to their former homes inside Israel.

The president didn't disavow either of those positions yesterday, nor did he reiterate them. However, he reaffirmed that the terms of any final settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians must be reached in negotiations between the two sides and not be imposed from outside.

"As I have previously stated, all final status issues must be negotiated between the parties in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338," Bush said, referring to the two primary documents of Middle East diplomacy. Both call for Israel to withdraw from territories it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, while guaranteeing the Jewish state secure borders.

After months of hardly any high-level contact between the White House and Palestinian leaders, Bush agreed with Abdullah that he should "make sure the Palestinians understand my desire" for them to have a prosperous country and a chance to realize their hopes.

He promised to send a letter to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei "that will explain my views. And we will expand contact between the United States and Palestinians."

In a statement made in the White House Rose Garden after his meeting with Abdullah, Bush avoided repeating two key demands that have been a staple of his Middle East rhetoric for most of the past two years: He did not demand that Palestinians crack down on militants in their midst or choose new leadership before progress could be made in the peace process.

Palestinian reforms and an end to violence are both key parts of the road map, which Bush unveiled more than a year ago. But until yesterday, Bush had tacitly supported Sharon's view that progress in implementing the plan was impossible because there was no reliable Palestinian leadership with which to negotiate. His overture to Qurei suggested that such a leadership exists.

Bush did not, however, back away from his refusal since June 2002 to have anything to do with the top Palestinian official, Yasser Arafat, whom Israel has kept confined to a damaged compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The top Palestinian official in Washington, Hasan Abdel Rahman, cautiously praised Bush's shift.

"We welcome any correction by President Bush to the statement he made on April 14 to Israel, which we felt did serious damage to the credibility of the United States and had a negative impact on what we believe is the only way to move forward - the road map. If what he said today constituted a correction, it's a welcome event," Abdel Rahman said.

The fate of the Palestinians is of tremendous importance to Jordan, which used to rule over the West Bank and over East Jerusalem, the historically Arab part of the Holy City. About half of Jordan's population is made up of Palestinian refugees, and the kingdom's Hashemite rulers have long feared that the conflict on the other side of the Jordan River could undermine their regime.

Abdullah canceled a previously scheduled meeting with Bush in protest over the American concessions in April to Sharon, which caused an international furor and made his own close ties to the United States a source of political trouble.

Those concessions were intended to bolster Sharon's campaign to win support inside Israel for his plan to withdraw Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip and from four small settlements in the northern West Bank.

Members of Sharon's Likud Party rejected the withdrawal scheme by a wide margin on Sunday, throwing its future into doubt. Bush nevertheless praised it anew yesterday as "a bold plan that can make a real contribution to peace."

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