Bush prods Mideast antagonists

In blunt language, he tells Israelis to end occupation and scolds Yasser Arafat for not doing more to curb terrorism.

Inexorably, the Bush administration is being drawn into a position it has long sought to avoid: active mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

President Bush's dispatch of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region represents a significant increase in US involvement. The prestige of the White House at the highest levels is now committed to finding at least a short-term solution to the cycle of terror-and-reprisal violence.

In pressing Israel for an end to its current military offensive, Mr. Bush for the first time publicly held Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to account for sending tanks crashing into Palestinian territory.

But at least Mr. Sharon can call in his troops if he so wishes. In demanding an end to suicide bombings, Bush Thursday may have asked for something that is now beyond Yasser Arafat's control. "I think the president is stepping up to the plate, and he is not a willing designated hitter," says Raymond Tanter, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, of Bush's new emphasis on the Arab-Israeli problem.

That the administration felt compelled to raise the level of its Middle East diplomacy comes as little surprise in Washington. In recent days, the Bush White House has come under concerted criticism for what critics felt was a standoffish policy toward the rising tide of violence.

"He's reacting, and wants to be able to signal to his critics that he doesn't have a deaf ear," says William Quandt, former Middle East negotiator for President Carter, now a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Several factors other than verbal pressure helped account for the shift, say analysts. One was that the current spiral could begin to weaken US relations with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

If Egypt breaks relations with Israel over the military campaign, for instance, the US Congress would likely end foreign aid for Egypt – straining long-standing US-Egyptian ties.

Also at work is the White House's realization that the geopolitical foundation of its war against terrorism is now at stake. This might go beyond increased regional resistance to any US action against Iraq. What if the US, largely seen in the Arab world as Israel's staunchest friend, itself becomes a target of radical Palestinian-style violence?

"Everyone is concerned: Are we Americans going to have to face some of this suicide bombing?" says Thomas Henrikson of the Hoover Institution. "I think that is where the president has to be worried. You can't just be hands off now."

But how much difference will Secretary of State Powell's impending visit to the area make? That is a key question, considering that in his speech Thursday, President Bush did not appear to voice any change in long-held US policy positions. The first step is to get control over terrorism and end the cycle of fighting in the region, said Bush.

"The storms of violence cannot go on," he said, with Powell standing grim-faced by his side. "Enough is enough."

Then the parties can proceed through a previously agreed-upon cease-fire plan brokered by CIA Director George Tenet, to a political peace outline laid out by former Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine.

The end result: a Palestinian state and a secure Israel cooperating economically and living peacefully side by side.

But the manner in which Bush talked about his timetable appeared to preclude talks on political issues while violence continues. The Palestinians turn this argument around, saying that lack of political movement is in fact the cause of the violence, and that until there is progress on the former, the latter will not end.

Bush also called on Israel to curb its settlements in Palestinian areas. His father, who clashed with Israel over this very issue during his own time in the Oval Office, can tell him how little influence the US has over settlement growth. All this means Powell will have to practice creative diplomacy is he is to make any progress towards long-term peace in the region. "Can this do the trick? Only if Powell has something new to talk about," says William Quandt.

Reaction to Bush's tough language fell along predictable political lines in the Mideast. Opposition leaders in Israel, such as Yossi Sarid of the Meretz Party, lauded the president's "clear call to halt the military operations."

Similarly, Raanan Cohen, a Labor Party member of Knesset, said, "The involvement of President Bush can bring about a process of quiet, which can in turn lead to a process of peace." But conservative members of the government seemed determined to continue their military campaign for now. "We will wait for Powell to bring a cease-fire," says Finance Minister Silvan Shalom of the Likud party. "Until he comes, we must continue and even when he comes it will take time to achieve a cease-fire. Every day that we act there, saves lives."

Palestinian officials, while welcoming the call to end the military incursion, disputed Bush's suggestion that Arafat had not done enough to stem the violence.

• Ben Lynfield contributed to this report from Jerusalem and Abraham McLaughlin from Washington.

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