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Middle East: Bush Defends U.S. Engagement In Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Some critics of U.S. President George W. Bush say his administration is acting too hesitantly in the Middle East peace process. Bush responds that American involvement in the region could not be more thorough.

Washington, 2 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush is dismissing criticism that his administration is not fully engaged in pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

On 31 March, U.S. television broadcast interviews with several current and former U.S. political figures who are critical of the Bush administration's Middle East policy, saying it seemed to be hesitant at best.

One, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), urged Bush to take what he called "much bolder moves" by sending his secretary of state, Colin Powell, to the region in an effort to demonstrate America's commitment to the process. Now, the highest-ranking U.S. mediator in the Middle East is retired General Anthony Zinni.

Speaking more critically, Zbigniew Brzezinski -- who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s -- said Bush's Middle East policy can best be characterized as "strategically incoherent."

Brzezinski said this policy is marked by conflicting signals. For example, he said, the U.S. voted for and vocally supports the UN Security Council resolution calling for an Israeli military withdrawal from Palestinian areas. At the same time, he said, Bush also tacitly approves the presence of Israeli troops in these lands by asserting Israel's right to defend itself from terrorism.

Yesterday, Bush was asked about such criticism during an informal meeting with reporters. The president replied his critics evidently were unaware that he had spent Easter weekend at his home in Crawford, Texas, discussing the issue by telephone with fellow heads of state and government.

"They must have not been with me in Crawford when I was on the phone all morning long talking to world leaders. We've just come from a National Security Council meeting where Colin Powell was recounting his phone conversations. We've got General Zinni in the region, we've got a Tenet plan, a Mitchell plan, a road map to what will be a peaceful resolution to this issue."

Bush was referring to the cease-fire initiative formulated by George Tenet, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and the broader Middle East peace proposal brought together under former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. Both Israel -- under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- and the Palestinian Authority -- under its chairman, Yasser Arafat -- say they are committed to the Tenet and Mitchell plans.

According to Bush, the onus of peace lies with Arafat, who he says is not doing enough to crack down on Palestinian groups that send suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians.

"There will never be peace so long as there's terror. And all of us must fight off -- fight terror. And you asked about Chairman Arafat. I'd like to see Chairman Arafat denounce the terrorist activities that are taking place, the constant attacks."

At the same time, Bush seemed to support Sharon's harsh response to the recent spate of bombings that have left dozens of people dead. But he also urged him to exercise restraint.

"I think it's very important for the prime minister [Sharon] to keep a pathway to peace open, to understand that on the one hand, Israel should protect herself, and on the other hand there ought to be a pathway, a capacity, to achieve a peaceful resolution to this issue. It's important for Israel to understand that."

Early in his administration, Bush and his top policy aides called for both sides to exercise restraint. But in recent months, Bush and his chief police aides have sided with Israel and blamed Arafat for the violence and supported Israel's right to defend itself. Yet occasionally, Bush has criticized Sharon, as when he said, on 13 March, that Israeli military action was "not helpful."

Yesterday, Bush's criticism of Israel was softer. The president limited himself to using the term "pathway to peace." This language was echoed hours later by State Department spokesman Philip Reeker.

Reeker also said the Bush administration is "gravely concerned" about the presence of Israeli troops in Ramallah, where Arafat's headquarters are located, because of the possibility of further violence there.

"We appreciate Israel's declaration that it does not intend to permanently seize Palestinian territory, but the risks of unintended confrontation and escalation are significant."

But Reeker went on to make it clear that the Bush administration believes it is up to Arafat to take the first meaningful step to end the violence. He said terror bombings by Palestinians only detract from Arafat's authority, and his ability to make peace for his people.