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If success is not won soon, President may face new, unfavorable options

Posted: Monday, April 15, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Israel, the Palestinians and much of the Arab world have defied President Bush's pleas for peace and tolerance in the Middle East. Without progress soon, Bush may be forced to consider policies that he had previously rejected as too extreme.

He could sever ties with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose relationship with the United States is already hanging by a thread. Bush also could intensify diplomatic pressure on Arab leaders, who are uneasy about his war on terrorism and have been balking at White House urgings that they press Arafat to renounce violence.

Even Israel, one of America's closest allies, may not be immune. The White House has ruled out cutting financial support to the Jewish state, but there are ways to turn up the heat. Bush could distance himself from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has frustrated the president with his refusal to end incursions into Palestinian cities.

The White House opened its doors Thursday to Sharon rival and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was given an audience with Vice President Dick Cheney. Like Sharon, Netanyahu has called for strong action against Palestinians.

''You have to read the riot act to both sides,'' said Judith Kipper, director of Mideast studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ''So far, he has read the riot act but has not backed it up.''

The Mideast crisis is testing Bush's influence in curbing Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and returning the world's focus to the now-overshadowed war on terrorism.

Aides warned Bush last week that it could be an enormous risk to abandon his long-held position that only Israelis and Palestinians -- not an American president -- could resolve the decades-old dispute. But he decided it would be a greater risk not to deepen his involvement, because the violence threatened to spread elsewhere and Israeli attacks were turning Arab leaders cold to Bush's plans to undermine Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Thus, he insisted that Israel stop its attacks on Palestinian cities and withdraw its troops. Bush urged Arafat to denounce terrorism and said Arab leaders needed to rally behind a peace plan and press Arafat to comply with it.

The calls went unheeded.

As Israel drove deeper into Palestinian cities, Bush added a timetable to his demands Saturday and said the withdrawal should be immediate. He and Sharon exchanged blunt words in a telephone call that same day.

Since then, Israel has attacked some cities and pulled back from others -- the only small diplomatic victory White House press secretary Ari Fleischer could point to Thursday.

Fleischer seemed to reward Sharon for the slightest bit of progress. Putting a positive spin on events, he said Israel was ''continuing'' its withdrawals.

''All parties have an obligation to act. All parties. Not just one,'' Fleischer said as he was peppered by questions about Israel's actions.

Arab leaders, meanwhile, seemed reluctant to pressure Arafat.

Saudi Arabia's ruling family gave $1.35 million to a campaign to raise millions of dollars in aid to families of Palestinian ''martyrs.'' White House officials considered whether to start publicly criticizing Arab leaders who incite or tacitly endorse violence.

Some Arab leaders have reacted coolly toward Secretary of State Colin Powell's peacemaking visit to the Mideast. King Mohammed VI of Morocco received Powell by saying, ''Don't you think it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?'' to pressure Israel.

Antony Blinken, a national security aide under President Clinton, said Israel is likely to heed the call for troop withdrawals because failing to do so would embarrass Bush -- a key Israeli ally.

''If he looks ineffectual ... the president will pay a political price,'' Blinken said. ''I think the president has pressure coming to him from all sides and the way to ease that is to get some progress. Quickly.''

Nobody wants to talk about the consequences of falling short.

Welcoming Powell to his nation Thursday, King Abdullah II of Jordan told the American, ''You know that we are so worried that if you fail. ...''

The king did not complete the sentence.

Kipper said there are many options open to Bush -- none easy. Among them: threaten to reduce Israeli aid, limit diplomatic contacts with the offending parties and bypass the leadership to speak directly to the Israeli and Palestinian people.

''He's trying to play a delicate balance,'' Kipper said. ''How do you pull the parties apart, yank them by the scruff of their necks and get them paying attention?''

''That may depend on how far the president is willing to go,'' she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ron Fournier has covered the White House and politics since 1993.



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