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U.S.: Blair-Bush Meeting In Texas Shifts Focus From Iraq To Mideast Conflict

Weeks ago, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush were planning Blair's visit to Bush's Texas ranch, the expected agenda was Iraq. The two-day visit began 5 April, but now the violence between Israelis and Palestinians dominates the news -- and so dominated the Blair-Bush meetings.

Washington, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a two-day visit to U.S. President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch, but the two leaders' agenda for the long-planned meeting was abruptly changed. Blair and Bush originally had planned to discuss whether they could expand their war against terrorism from Afghanistan to Iraq in order to unseat President Saddam Hussein. But the escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians has now become the focus of their attention.

On 4 April, Blair's spokesman made it clear that the Middle East violence would be what he called "the main issue" of discussion between the two leaders. Blair himself elaborated on this in an interview with NBC News. "In that situation, where the two sides are so locked in conflict like that, they can't get together without an external force bringing them together. And I think we've got to deepen that process. It's one of the things, obviously, I will discuss with the president [Bush] over the course of the next few days."

For the past week, as the Middle East violence continued to escalate, Bush has come under increasing criticism from those who said his administration was not fully engaged in trying to mediate the conflict. At first, Bush responded by saying he was devoting plenty of effort to the problem.

Last Monday, for example, he said he had spent the Easter weekend not relaxing, but discussing the crisis by telephone with other 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'd 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 roadmap to what will be a peaceful resolution to this issue."

Powell, Bush's secretary of state, also protested, saying that he, too, was working hard on helping resolve the crisis.

But the critics said this was not enough, and some demanded that Powell himself be sent to the region to bring his personal prestige to bear on the issue.

On Thursday, Bush finally relented. In a 15-minute speech at the White House, the president said he was sending Powell to the Middle East this week to try to negotiate a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In the address, Bush also continued his criticism of Yassir Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. But he also called on Israel to begin withdrawing its forces from Palestinian lands. He said both sides must realize that further violence cannot lead to an acceptable result. "The outlines of a just settlement are clear: two states -- Israel and Palestine -- living side by side in peace and security. This can be a time for hope, but it calls for leadership, not for terror."

Bush also demanded that Israel's Arab neighbors help Arafat curb elements in Palestinian society that organize suicide bombings aimed at Israeli civilians. And he urged Arab governments to stop using their state-run media stations to champion suicide bombers as martyrs.

The U.S. president also placed particular emphasis on some Arab governments' practice of sending money to the families of suicide bombers after the attacks. "Those governments like Iraq that reward parents for the sacrifice of their children are guilty of soliciting murder of the worst kind."

Earlier last week, the prime minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, who now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, tried to become engaged in the peace process. But Israel refused to let Arafat meet with Aznar, and Aznar's mission was aborted.

So it has become evident that only the U.S. can be expected to mediate a settlement in the conflict. In Ankara, Turkey's prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, put it this way: "The recent statement made by Mr. Bush is very important, because the conflict which has escalated can only be ended with the intervention of the U.S. government."

But that does not mean that the new U.S. initiative is guaranteed to succeed. Despite Powell's personal prestige, he is outranked by Aznar. So it is not clear whether the U.S. diplomat will have any more luck in arranging a meeting with Arafat than the Spanish leader did.

Still, Washington is finally making the extra effort, and that alone may be enough to resume good-faith negotiations between the two bitter enemies, if it accomplishes nothing more.