President Bush returns to true north

In calling for Arafat's ouster, Bush in effect sees the Palestinian leader as irredeemable.

In outlining a Middle East road map that dumps Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat off at the nearest exit, President Bush has returned to true north on his moral and political compass.

Mr. Bush has never respected, trusted, or liked Mr. Arafat, refusing even to invite him to the White House. But the official US line has been that, despite his faults, Arafat is still the representative of the Palestinian people, and as such, an unavoidable companion on the path to peace in the region.

No longer. By demanding Arafat's ouster as one precondition of US support for a Palestinian state, Bush now appears to be labeling the Palestinian leader as irredeemable – someone who is on the wrong side of the larger US struggle against the dark forces of terrorism. Judged bold by some, and perplexing by others, the change represents perhaps the strongest endorsement of Israel's approach to the Palestinian conflict by a US president in decades. As such, it may have an important effect on US domestic politics, as well as foreign policy.

"In my memory, this is the most decisive judgement of an American president to accept almost entirely the right-wing Israeli interpretation of what has to be done to make peace," says Sam Lewis, former US ambassador to Israel under Presidents Carter and Reagan. "It reflects the absolute priority the president has on the overall war on terrorism," and is an acceptance of the Israeli position that their military campaign in the West Bank and Gaza is being fought in the same spirit as the US war on terrorism.

In recent months, the "Bush doctrine" of not supporting states that harbor or feed terrorists has taken a beating as the administration has continued to work with Arafat despite continued suicide bombings in Israel.

Some Mideast observers argued that the Palestinian-Israeli problem was too complex to easily fit into the president's with-us or agin'-us view, and that the administration had no choice but to work with Arafat. Indeed, the administration itself was divided over how to proceed with the crisis. Some officials have argued that Arafat has little control over the radicals who conduct the suicide bombings.

But, as a senior administration official explains, the president lost patience after last week's attacks. On Saturday, after a three-mile run, he decided to change his postponed speech to include a call for Arafat's ouster, though not by name. "The violence did change the character of the speech," the official says.

Richard Perle, assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan, calls the move "long overdue" and "bold."

"When was the last time you heard a president of the United States call for new leadership when large numbers of people, at least publicly, are saying that Yasser Arafat is the sole legitimate authority speaking for the Palestinian people?" he asks.

Analysts point out that Bush's call for "a new and different Palestinian leadership" that is "not compromised by terror" serves a clear domestic political purpose of shoring up his support in the overall electorate and among Jewish voters specifically.

An April Gallup Poll shows that half of Americans express sympathies with the Israelis, while just 15 percent sympathize more with the Palestinians. At the same time, Bush saw his father suffer politically after he became involved in a dispute with the Israelis over settlements in the occupied territories.

Still, while politics may play a role here, the thrust of the president's remarks in the sultry Rose Garden this week is vintage Bush, and not just in his final decision to marginalize Arafat.

A significant part of the speech also dealt with the need for Palestinian reform – of its government and constitution, of its judicial system, of its security apparatus. Only after reform, new leaders, and a full effort to reduce violence and dismantle terrorism, can they have statehood, the president decreed.

What Bush is saying, according to Mr. Perle, is "if you want help from us, you have to earn it."

Sound familiar? Accountability is a core philosophy for this president – a requirement for everything from education reform to the doubling of foreign aid. It is what he expects from his own staffers and cabinet secretaries, and it is perhaps the overwhelming characteristic that defines the president's governing style.

While many laud the idea of accountability, they note that making demands that are too rigorous can undermine the whole process. "The question is, what does it take for people to get there?" says James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser under Clinton. "If you make everything a precondition, then it's very, very hard to get there."

Arab experts also criticize the president for putting many conditions on the Palestinians, while requiring little of the Israelis until after the Palestinians have reformed and terrorism has subsided. Notably absent from this week's speech, as opposed to one he gave on April 4, was any call for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas.

While too much of a one-sided stance could undermine US credibility as an honest broker in Middle East negotiations, Ambassador Lewis doesn't think it has reached that point. Bush, he says, is still envisioning a Palestinian state and a final settlement, even if he hasn't laid out many specifics on how to get there. The president is also now more deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian problem than ever before. "I don't think he'll be compromised as a mediator," says Lewis.

Of course, during the 2000 campaign Bush criticized the Clinton administration for just such intense personal involvement. Unlike Bill Clinton, however, Bush is attempting to put more of the onus for progress on the parties in the region. If this attempt at peace fails, analysts say, he can say they didn't really want peace after all.

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