Bush shapes his plan for 'Palestine'

After weeks of consultations, he prepares to make a major speech.

As President Bush considers how far to go with his vision of a Palestinian state, his situation is not unlike Harry Truman's in 1948.

Then, the question was whether to recognize nascent Israel and the implantation of a Jewish state in the already complicated Middle East. Some confidants favored the idea, the State Department opposed it – but ultimately, Truman opted for recognition.

Now, nearly three months after Mr. Bush's Rose Garden speech in which he offered a vision of "two states living side by side in peace" – and spoke openly of "Palestine" – Bush is on the verge of filling in the blanks of that vision. Whether he opts for quick recognition of an interim Palestinian state, for a go-slow approach that emphasizes nailing down security first, or some combination of the two, his decision, like Truman's, is likely to set the course for the Middle East for years to come.

Bush is expected to offer his vision in a speech as early as this week. Analysts say that Bush will give the speech, anticipated as a major one of Bush's presidency, not only because he wants to see progress in the Middle East, but also because the issue is clouding other items on the president's agenda.

"This decision is a pivotal point in the Bush presidency. He must make the right judgment that keeps him from having an unpleasant confrontation with [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon, while also not losing his new credibility with the Arab states," says Stephen Cohen, national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum in New York. "But he is motivated to make this speech – even if some of his advisers may not want him to – because it is clear in his mind that he can't start or advance other work until this gets clarified."

That other work includes the broader war on terrorism, Mr. Cohen says, domestic perceptions of the effectiveness of the homeland-security drive, fall midterm elections, even the looming first anniversary of the September terrorist attacks. Referring to the first point, he adds, "He doesn't want the Arab states against him as he goes into the next phases of the war on terrorism."

Although the president warned as recently as last Thursday against speculating on what he might decide, hints from US officials and leaders who have spoken with Bush suggest his plan will include concrete steps for creation of a Palestinian state.

The emphasis would be on the building of institutions to offer the Palestinian people a more democratic government, as well as other reforms to enhance security. Other points the president might include are a timetable for the steps to a peace accord, and more specifics for a summer Middle East peace conference, which Secretary of State Colin Powell announced last month but which lately has seemed to be slipping.

The possibility of establishing an interim state could be a "halfway house" for the Palestinians, Cohen says, promising better things to come if other goals are met. Such a state could act as an incentive for Palestinians to take the institution-building phase seriously and to cease anti-Israeli violence.

"If you give the Palestinians reason to hope there is light at the end of the tunnel, then there is an acceptable rationale for reform of the Palestinian Authority," says Charles Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now president of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington.

This "Palestine" would be provisional, because it would be created with Palestinian authority over only part of the Israeli-occupied territories, and before all issues are settled. Endgame issues like final borders, refugees, and Jerusalem would be negotiated as reforms and security progressed.

Bush has just completed what Mr. Powell calls a "consultative round" that stretched over two months and saw a stream of leaders from the region visiting the White House. After a long session at Camp David with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, last week began with Mr. Sharon's sixth visit to the Bush White House, and ended with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

Prince Saud said he was "very pleased" with what he heard from Bush. Earlier this year, the Saudi government offered a landmark peace proposal that would exchange Israel's withdrawal to pre-1967 borders for full normalization of Arab-Israeli ties.

With Sharon, meanwhile, Bush emphasized the US commitment to Israel's security, Israel's "right to defend herself," and the need for reform of the Palestinian government.

With midterm elections looming, Bush may be reluctant to take steps that risk alienating Jewish voters – all the more so given the strengthening bond over the Israel issue between some members of the American Jewish community and evangelical Christians.

But at the same time, Bush's Middle East deliberations come as the US works to maintain strong relations with key Arab countries. The Bush administration is already seeing its stepped-up diplomacy result in improved relations with Saudi Arabia – a warming that could be crucial should the US finally move to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein over allegations of weapons of mass destruction.

But the potential pitfalls for the US as Bush decides his course of action remain large – and first and foremost involve land.

The Saudi peace plan, now adopted by the Arab League of Nations, calls for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders. Sharon has says that will never happen.

"If Bush says anything about 1967 and borders, then it's a big problem for Sharon and starts out very controversial," says Cohen. "Sharon can live with something if it is more vague than that."

Ambassador Freeman says that any Bush plan, to have credibility with Arabs and much of the international community, must address the issue of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. "If in the end, the president's plan says once again, 'The Palestinians must end the violence,' but doesn't take up settlements that are themselves acts of violence, then it will be one more nonstarter."

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