Plan for peace in Mideast hits snag

Thursday, June 20, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Israel's threatened reoccupation of West Bank areas and two lethal suicide blasts have vastly complicated -- and may torpedo -- President Bush's plan to seek a provisional Palestinian state and to prod Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table.

His concept already had drawn skepticism in the region and among some Bush advisers. Now, the president has the added burden of persuading Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull back from the very lands that would be at the heart of such a state.

Bush had been poised to outline his plan at midweek. But that has now been put on hold.

"It's hard to get people to focus on peace today when they're still suffering from the consequences of terrorism," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said after the second suicide bombing in as many days.

Israeli tanks and troops rolled into Palestinian areas after Tuesday's attack on a bus killed 19 people, including several high school students, as well as the bomber. A second suicide bomber rocked Jerusalem on Wednesday, killing more Israelis as well as himself.

Suicide attacks earlier this spring helped derail peace missions by both Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Now Israel is aggressively reoccupying Palestinian areas and is working on a fence near the 1967 boundary.

Bush had been expected to back a Palestinian state with provisional borders as an incentive to end the bombings. He also was expected to call for a dramatic overhaul of the Palestinian Authority -- implying a change in leadership.

But the plan was quickly turning into a hard sell on both sides.

Palestinians are suspicious of any plan without a firm timetable, while Sharon adamantly opposes any form of Palestinian statehood at this time. He blames Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to stop the attacks.

Some senior Bush advisers, particularly Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, argue that proposing a Palestinian state or any timetable would reward terrorists. That argument gained with the latest bombings, aides suggested Wednesday.

Laying blame

The notion of a provisional Palestinian state "is at best a bizarre concept," said James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute. Zogby said he doubted Bush's proposals would have revived the peace process in any event. "Expectations were built too high about the speech," he said.

The Sharon government and militant groups responsible for the bombings "are kind of playing into each other's hands," Zogby suggested. "Neither wants a peace settlement based on a Palestinian state, neither wants Arafat's leadership and neither at this point wants the United States to become involved in a meaningful way."

Arab leaders also are alarmed by what they see as a strong pro-Israel bias, particularly after National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice recently told the San Jose Mercury News the Palestinian Authority "is corrupt and cavorts with terror."

Two key U.S. allies -- Jordan and Egypt -- also took issue with provisional Palestinian statehood this week.

James Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser in the Clinton White House, said Palestinian interim statehood and Israeli reoccupation "can't exist together."

But the situation may actually give the Bush administration more leverage. "It can say to the Palestinians that the way to get the Israelis back out is to take our proposal," Steinberg said.

Fleischer, the presidential spokesman, repeated the White House response that Israel has the right to defend itself. But, he added pointedly, "Israel has to remember the consequences of its actions today for what happens tomorrow."

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