Baltimore Sun

Bush tries hard Mideast balancing act

Jules Witcover

June 28, 2002

WASHINGTON -- For weeks, the world waited for President Bush to come up with his plan to deal with the mayhem in the Middle East.

The latest round of suicide bombings against Israelis put it on hold for a time, but the president finally came through -- with merely a wish list that depends on unrealistic expectations of constructive behavior on both sides.

Principally, Mr. Bush is calling on the Palestinian people to dump Yasser Arafat and turn themselves into citizens of a democracy complete with a new leader, a new legislature, a new judiciary, even a new constitution.

He didn't mention Mr. Arafat by name, but if the Palestinians don't clean up their act, he warned them during this week's summit of world leaders in Canada, "I can assure you we won't be putting any money into a society which is ... corrupt."

It did not take long for Mr. Arafat to say that the Palestinian people, not the American president, will decide on those matters or for Russian President Vladimir Putin to warn that a forced ouster of the once-elected Mr. Arafat "would only radicalize the Palestinian movement."

Other world leaders at the Canadian summit also soft-pedaled giving Mr. Arafat the boot.

Mr. Bush's call for extensive reform among the Palestinians is a far cry from the position he took as a candidate in debating Al Gore in the 2000 campaign.

He expressed strong opposition then to American involvement in other people's affairs abroad, especially in "nation-building."

But a lot has happened between then and now, and the president's latest speech underscores how far he has come from his determined effort of earlier this year to steer clear of the Middle East morass.

A catalyst in his change of attitude obviously was Sept. 11. It made him a global warrior against terrorism of all stripes, whether it's hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or the suicide attacks by young Palestinians against Israelis.

Just as the president has declared his determination to move against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and his quest for weapons of mass destruction as part of the war on terrorism, he sees the more complicated Middle East quagmire in the same terms.

This viewpoint enabled him to talk pointedly, if not by name, of the need to oust Mr. Arafat while making only a passing plea for an eventual end to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's settlement-building in the occupied territories, a trigger for continuing Palestinian hatred.

Mr. Bush is certainly right in saying that the suicide bombings and other violence must end before Mr. Sharon and his government will consider pulling out of the occupied territories.

But while the president did specify that "as we make progress toward security ... Israeli settlement activity must stop," he notably did not call on Mr. Sharon to stop it now.

Mr. Bush, in saying nothing about Mr. Sharon's decision to start reoccupying cities and towns in the West Bank as the latest retribution for the suicide bombings, amounted to flashing a green light to the man who now says he does not visualize a Palestinian state anytime soon.

Also absent in the Bush speech was much hint of American action in place of words to break the impasse.

Mr. Bush said only that he has asked Secretary of State Colin Powell "to work intensively with Middle Eastern and international leaders to realize the vision of a Palestinian state, focusing them on a comprehensive plan to support Palestinian reform and institution building."

Few will argue that such a long-term development would be an advantageous step toward peace in the Middle East.

But unless it is accompanied by evidence from Mr. Sharon that his settlement policy is not already set in stone, the conflict seems certain to rage on.

More than providing any realistic road map for the achievement of peace in the region, Mr. Bush's speech further aligns him with Mr. Sharon, even as he says he looks for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

It's quite a balancing act.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun