- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

President Bush, whose handling of the war on terrorism and other foreign policy crises has won broad bipartisan praise, suddenly finds himself unable to please anyone on the Middle East.
Mr. Bush yesterday refused to answer reporters' shouted questions on the burgeoning violence, preferring to let Secretary of State Colin L. Powell explain the administration's evolving position for the second day in less than a week.
At a fund-raiser last night, Mr. Bush mentioned the conflict in broad terms. But he did not criticize Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's response to the wave of suicide bombings in Israel and did not specifically exhort Mr. Arafat to do more to counter them.
The president's actions have done little to satisfy Democrats, Republicans, an increasingly critical news media or the Palestinians.
"I believe that the administration ought to be working on a broader plan, beyond the security issue, for the overall political settlement," said Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, on Fox News Channel.
"It's important to elevate the talks," he added. "The matter is so critical at this moment that Secretary of State Colin Powell ought to become directly involved in the negotiations, in my opinion."
Mr. Specter is not the only member of Congress to criticize the president's Middle East policy in recent days. So have Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, who said the administration is sending mixed signals on the deepening crisis.
Those mixed signals continued yesterday when Mr. Powell voiced support for Israel's latest counteroffensive, even though the United States called for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories in a U.N. resolution during the weekend.
Mr. Powell explained in five TV interviews that Israel is merely cleaning out terrorist cells from Palestinian lands and will then withdraw.
"Israel will not buckle under and suddenly make the kinds of concessions that Palestinians would like to see them make in the presence of this kind of violence," Mr. Powell told Fox News.
Such shifts in Middle East policy are becoming an almost daily occurrence at the White House. On Monday, Mr. Bush refused to label Mr. Arafat a terrorist, even though the president has long equated terrorists with those who harbor them.
During his State of the Union speech in January, Mr. Bush singled out terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, which are sympathetic to Palestinians, as part of the "axis of evil" that also includes Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
In recent days, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has replaced North Korea with Syria on the list of the top three states harboring terrorists. But he, like the rest of the administration, refrained from including the Palestinian Authority on that list.
On Monday, the president explained, much to the chagrin of some conservatives, that he is making an exception for the Palestinians because Mr. Arafat "has negotiated with parties as to how to achieve peace."
But in the next breath, Mr. Bush criticized Mr. Arafat for not sufficiently condemning the suicide bombers who have multiplied in recent weeks. Yesterday was the first day in a week that no bomber struck in Israel.
"Whatever happened to the president's clear formulation that anyone who harbors a terrorist or helps a terrorist will be treated as a terrorist?" the Weekly Standard argued in an editorial this week.
At the Philadelphia fund-raiser, Mr. Bush expressed sympathy for both sides, saying he hoped Palestinians would get "their own peaceful state" and Israel could have normal ties with its Arab neighbors.
Mr. Bush muted his criticism of Mr. Arafat and his support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, mentioning neither by name and vowing that the United States would work to stop "terrorist activities" aimed at derailing peace efforts.
"I've got a vision for the Middle East that says Israel must be allowed to exist," Mr. Bush said. "I hope that [the Palestinians] can have their own peaceful state at peace with their neighbor Israel, a self-governing country, a country in which there is economic prosperity."
Although the president appears to distrust Mr. Arafat he has never met with the Palestinian leader and has talked to him on the phone only once Mr. Powell yesterday opposed Mr. Sharon's suggestion that Mr. Arafat be exiled.
"Sending him into exile will just give him another place from which to conduct the same kinds of activities and give the same messages that he's giving now," Mr. Powell said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Saeb Erekat, a spokesman for Mr. Arafat, pleaded last night on CNN for Mr. Bush's personal involvement.
"Palestinians and Israelis need help and the international community must step up its intervention," Mr. Erekat said. "President Bush has the responsibility to take command" and implement the weekend's U.N. resolution.
Mr. Erekat also suggested that the Palestinians would engage in more attacks if their demands were not met.
"If this continues, we have not seen the worst yet … President Bush should realize that Palestinians will not live under occupation for the rest of their lives," he said.
Mr. Bush also is feeling increased pressure on the home front to become more engaged in Middle East peace efforts. His administration made a conscious decision not to repeat the mistake of former President Clinton, who sponsored the all-or-nothing peace talks at Camp David that ended in failure.
But now that Mr. Bush's arms-length approach has also failed to quell the violence, the president is facing almost daily calls from Democratic quarters to immerse himself in the debacle.
"I regret very much that this administration has not been as fully involved as we were," said Madeleine K. Albright in an appearance Monday night on CNN, during which she called for Mr. Powell to visit the region personally.
"I think they very much felt that we were over-involved, whereas, I think that we were acting responsibly in trying to bring the parties together," Mr. Clinton's secretary of state said.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, said Mr. Bush's policy "literally doesn't make much sense" and predicted "a drift towards an abyss … unless the United States rapidly and quickly steps into the breach."
The president is unaccustomed to widespread criticism of his foreign policy. Early in his administration, he won bipartisan plaudits for his handling of the crisis over a U.S. reconnaissance plane that was downed in China. Mr. Bush managed to navigate that diplomatic minefield without excessive saber rattling.
His foreign policy credentials were burnished even further after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Most Democrats consider it political suicide to attack the president's prosecution of the war.



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