President's Middle East balancing act

Bush juggles competing alliances in charting role for U.S. in peace process

Posted: Sunday, April 21, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is engaged in a careful balancing act as he seeks a U.S. role in the Mideast that does not alienate conservative activists in his party or the moderate Arab states he is courting for his war on terror.

Thus far, Bush seems to be accomplishing it, sort of, despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's failure to win a truce during his 10-day mission. Or perhaps because of that rebuff, some analysts suggest.

Pro-Israel conservatives, troubled by Powell's dealings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, have few qualms about letting Israel complete its military offensive.

Arab nations, while displeased with Powell's inability to persuade Israel to end that drive, welcomed the Bush administration's increased involvement.

Arab leaders who met with Vice President Dick Cheney last month, in fact, had demanded a more active American role as a condition for their continued support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

''A lot of conservatives think the last month hasn't been Bush's strongest since Sept. 11. On the other hand, there's nothing that Bush can't recoup by refocusing on the war on terrorism,'' said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

Such a shift clearly was evident last week. Bush proposed an ambitious U.S.-led rebuilding plan for Afghanistan in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, and later told reporters at the White House the fight against terrorism was ''the calling of our time.''

He said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was a ''man of peace'' and declined to criticize the pace of Israeli withdrawal.

Bush's kind words for Sharon came after conservatives let the president know they were increasingly troubled by his administration's overtures to Arafat.

''A firestorm is starting to build, a firestorm of criticism,'' leading conservative William Bennett said.

Even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- staunchly pro-Israel and the administration's leading foreign policy hawk -- was booed at a pro-Israel rally when he cited international support for a Palestinian state and noted that Palestinian civilians were themselves victims of the war.

The rebuke showed ''the deep passions that run on all sides of this issue,'' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Wolfowitz was only ''delivering the president's message,'' Fleischer said.

Criticism of dealing with Arafat has nurtured an unusual coalition in Congress: Democrats with large Jewish constituencies, traditionally among the most outspoken Israel boosters, joining with Republican conservatives and the Christian religious right.

''I am sensing in the community I serve people who are very concerned about his call for a Palestinian state,'' religious broadcaster Pat Robertson told CNN. ''That has set the teeth on edge of a number of Evangelicals who are his (Bush's) strong friends and supporters.''

Powell's inability to deliver an Israeli pullback drew criticism in Arab capitals and a snub from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Bush will have an opportunity to mend fences when he meets Thursday with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, author of a plan to offer recognition of Israel in exchange for return of Arab lands seized in the 1967 war.

Thus far, the Mideast crisis has not emerged as a top issue in 2002 races. Polls show Americans support Israel over the Palestinians by roughly a 4-1 margin.

''I think people have low expectations of American success in cleaning up this war. They're not going to hold the administration particularly responsible for Powell's failure,'' said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and newsletter publisher.

But Judith Kipper, a Mideast specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bush faces ''a dilemma of political leadership'' by trying to appease both moderate Arab states and GOP conservatives who are part of his political base.

''I think he's been trying unsuccessfully to balance these things,'' Kipper said. ''The right wing is still beating him up. But on the other hand, he does not appear prepared to use the full persuasive powers at his disposal for the peace process. And, if he doesn't, we're not going to get anything done.''

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.



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