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Middle East: Powell Defends U.S. Policy From Critics At Home

America's Middle East policy is regularly criticized in Europe and the Arab world. But yesterday it came under fire in the U.S. Senate, where a veteran lawmaker accused President George W. Bush's administration of making the Middle East crisis worse.

Washington, 25 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was forced to defend the President George W. Bush administration's handling of the Middle East crisis yesterday from criticism by a prominent American senator of the Democratic Party.

In yet another sign of Democrats openly criticizing Bush after remaining quiet for months in support of his popular war on terrorism, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) strongly criticized the White House's Mideast diplomacy. He said Bush's Republican administration "blundered badly" by staying out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until recently and blamed it for the spiraling violence

His comments came as violence continued to rage on the West Bank. Israeli tanks and troops killed three Palestinians during raids on villages, including one Arab who was shot in a gun battle near Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where dozens of Palestinian militants remained holed up inside in a stand-off with Israeli troops.

Meanwhile, Israel delayed the deployment of a United Nations fact-finding mission to the Jenin refugee camp, where Palestinians say Israeli troops massacred Arab civilians. Israel demanded the mission include military and counterintelligence experts. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says such experts can be added to the team but wants it in the Mideast by 27 April.

Powell also urged Israel to cooperate with the team's investigation, to which Israel agreed last week.

Leahy spoke as Powell testified before a Senate appropriations panel on foreign operations, which the senator chairs. Leahy praised Powell for being a "voice of engagement and fairness" toward the Middle East crisis. But he put the blame for the conflict's spiraling violence squarely on the Republican administration's shoulders.

"When we look at the horrifying violence in the Middle East, something that none of us can overlook, my personal opinion is that the administration blundered badly by staying away when our leadership was needed most."

The senator added that he didn't know why the administration had stayed out of the conflict for over a year until recently -- whether it was because Bush was too busy with the war on terrorism, did not want to get sucked into a political quagmire, or simply wished to distance himself from a peace effort that was the hallmark of his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

"We're the only country that can play the role of intermediary in the Middle East. The situation has become so polarized, so steeped in bitterness and hatred, that our task is now infinitely harder."

Analysts say Powell has sought a more balanced approach to the crisis from the administration, some of whose elements are seen as clearly favoring Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel.

Leahy's accusations against the Bush administration reflects a trend among Democrats, who are seeking issues they can criticize the popular president on ahead of this fall's congressional elections.

However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not usually a divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans. Members of both parties are largely pro-Israel and have gone out of their way recently to impress voters by strongly defending the Jewish state.

Powell, who recently returned from a Mideast peace mission in which he failed to obtain a cease-fire, was quick to respond to Leahy's charge and defend Bush.

He said it was inaccurate to say the administration had stayed out of the conflict until recently, pointing to White House efforts last year to get Palestinians and Israelis to sign cease-fire and peace plans put forth by Central Intelligence Director George Tenet and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.

Powell said America had done its best to resolve the conflict and blamed the ongoing bloodshed on Palestinians and Israelis alike.

However, Powell admitted some U.S. bias toward Israel with regard to a long-standing demand by Sharon that Palestinian violence cease for at least a week before any kind of peace talks could resume. "We sided with, frankly, the Israeli side here by saying that you had to have security -- you had to have some confidence that you were not going to have your citizens blown up in suicide bombs or other kinds of terrorist activities."

Powell also said that while Israel killed terrorists and perhaps some "innocents" at Jenin, he has seen no evidence that suggests any massacre of Palestinian civilians at the refugee camp, the site of perhaps the worst fighting in Israel's West Bank offensive.

He said he based his view on a recent 3 1/2-hour visit to the camp by U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns.

Palestinians claim that hundreds of civilians were killed at Jenin, where dozens of homes were destroyed by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. Israel says it killed a few dozen gunmen while losing 23 soldiers in fighting.