- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

NEW ORLEANS Some Republicans are rallying to defend President Bush against accusations that he has tilted too much in favor of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Arabs.
The violence in the Middle East has split rank-and-file members of the Republican Party, creating divisions among religious conservatives and prompting some supporters of Mr. Bush to defend Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's recently concluded mission to the region.
Conservatives have sharply criticized the mission and the president's demand that Israeli forces withdraw immediately from Palestinian territories leading other Republicans to defend the administration's approach to the crisis.
"I'm a religious conservative, and I view Secretary Powell as a coalition builder, and I admire that," said Virginia Republican Party Chairman Gary Thomson at a Republican National Committee (RNC) meeting here of state party chairmen from around the country. "The president and his advisers formulate the strategy, Powell is a component of that, and at the end of the day, I'll trust the president and Powell to get us through this."
Mr. Bush, in his weekly radio address yesterday, repeated his call for Israeli forces to pull out quickly from Palestinian territories. "Israel must continue its withdrawals," he said.
From former Education Secretary William Bennett and popular radio commentator Rush Limbaugh to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, many conservatives have criticized the president in recent weeks. They have urged him to be more supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's effort to crack down on suspected terrorist cells in the occupied territories in the West Bank.
"As much as I respect Bill Bennett and others who have criticized the president, they don't speak for all Christians," North Carolina Republican Chairman Bill Cobey, a former member of Congress, said in an interview.
"I haven't received one phone call, one e-mail, one comment from anybody, the press included, that would say our people aren't behind him," said Mr. Cobey, who calls himself a "strong supporter" of Israel.
"Do I like Arafat? No. I wish Arafat was not the representative of the Palestinian people, but we can't find anyone else and you've got to keep the channels of communication open."
New Mexico Republican Chairman John Dendahl said Mr. Bush's critics are wrong but cited a different reason. "The president is being as close to 100 percent supportive of the position of Israel in this conflict as it's possible to be. And I think it's the right thing to do."
Al Cardenas, Florida party chairman, said Mr. Bush must maintain some critical distance from the Israeli government's actions in order for the United States to help achieve a lasting political settlement in the region.
"The president still views the role of the United States in the Middle East conflict as being a key mediator, which by definition requires tact, patience and understanding of both sides of the equation," Mr. Cardenas said.
"To abandon that role and come down on one side would be the most significant shift in American foreign policy in 50 years and it would not be appropriate."
Conservative Christian activists are an important segment of the Republican Party's electoral coalition. They tend to be strong supporters of Israel, Mr. Thomson said, because "most religious conservatives feel that the health of our relationship with Israel is critical to our nation."
"We are still predominantly a religious nation and Jesus was himself a Jew, and from a spiritual and biblical context, that is very important," the Virginia Republican chairman added. "There's clearly the opportunity for people to second-guess the president and say Arafat can't be trusted; practically, Arafat is very important and if there is a way to move him to a solution, then we'd better do it. I don't want American foreign policy to be dictated by any one country."

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