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Two Basic Questions Dog Bush’s Mideast Peace Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Bush administration struggled Tuesday to generate momentum behind its sweeping new vision for a final Middle East peace, grappling with tough challenges facing the plan and mixed reaction from some of those pivotal to the process.

As the administration began charting a new course for the region, concerns on both sides in the conflict centered on two basic questions: Is President Bush’s vision too ambitious? And for all the detailed demands, was it too vague about how to achieve them?

The White House made clear Tuesday that the onus is now on the players in the troubled region--Palestinians, moderate Arabs and the Israelis--to follow the U.S. initiative with specific actions.

“I laid out the conditions that I thought were necessary. I called on all parties in the region to assume the proper responsibilities,” Bush said Tuesday evening in Kananaskis, in the Canadian province of Alberta, where he was meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on the eve of a summit of leading industrial nations. The president will press his plan--and try to overcome some skepticism about it--in private talks with other leaders at the Group of 8 meeting.

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White House spokesman Ari Fleischer added Tuesday: “If the parties [in the Middle East] want to find a way out of the violence, they need to heed his call.”

That includes Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. In his speech, Bush called on the Palestinians to elect new leaders to help create a Palestinian state over the next three years, a statement widely interpreted as a call to oust Arafat.

U.S. officials said Tuesday that one reason Bush made that move is that Arafat has maintained direct ties and provided funds to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant faction that claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing last Wednesday that killed seven Israelis as Bush was making key decisions on his peace plan.

That involvement “made it fairly clear that the kind of change that [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell had told [Arafat] to make a few months before when they met in Ramallah had not been made,” said an administration official who asked to remain anonymous.

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The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported last week that intelligence sources had identified a $20,000 payment Arafat had authorized for Al Aqsa, according to U.S. officials.

Despite the language in Bush’s speech, U.S. officials indicated Tuesday that to some degree, they are still counting on Arafat to be part of the process.

“He’s currently in a leadership position. We continue to look to him to take responsibility, to exercise authority and to exercise leadership,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.

Nor have contacts with the Palestinian Authority been broken. “We still have a charge [d’affaires] there, and we are in touch with different Palestinian leaders as recently as yesterday, before the president’s speech as well as after,” Powell said in an interview Tuesday with Radio Sawa, a U.S.-sponsored Arabic station.

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Arafat’s future was the most contentious issue in reaction worldwide Tuesday to Bush’s plan.

European and Arab governments generally endorsed many of Bush’s ideas on the need to institute massive Palestinian political reforms and curtail violence as preludes to creation of a new state. But no nation joined in Bush’s implicit call for Arafat’s ouster; some even questioned that interpretation.

“Bush’s speech includes nothing calling for toppling ... Arafat, but it rather referred to the need to restructure the Palestinian National Authority,” said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Britain, America’s closest major ally, welcomed the heightened U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process.

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But Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed Europe’s concern about demanding that Arafat be excluded from a leadership role.

“We have always said it is for the Palestinian people to choose their own leader,” Blair’s spokesman told reporters.

After talks with Arafat, who is again besieged in his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah by Israeli tanks and troops, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on Tuesday called Palestinian reforms “absolutely vital.” But he said it is up to the Palestinians alone to select their leadership.

The reactions and the ongoing contacts between U.S. officials and current Palestinian leaders underscore one of the basic challenges in the U.S. initiative: how exactly to proceed with the effort to change the leadership, the most ambitious aspect of Bush’s speech.

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Nudging Arafat and his inner circle aside won’t be easy. The Palestinian president Tuesday basically dismissed the notion. Asked whether he felt targeted by Bush’s plan, he replied, “Definitely not.” Pressed on Bush’s call for new Palestinian leaders, Arafat said: “This is what my people will decide. They are the only ones who can determine this.”

Pushing Arafat out also carries risks. Indeed, Arafat’s presence is considered by many to be the only thing that is keeping extremists from creating greater turmoil in the region--for Palestinians and Israelis, according to analysts on both sides of the conflict.

“There is more than ever a growing perception, and that includes among senior officials in the Palestinian Authority, that Arafat has failed, that he must eventually go,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and currently a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “But there is also a realization on their part that if he leaves at the beginning of the process, the whole system collapses and the country finds itself in total anarchy.”

Shikaki added: “The alternative is going to be militias in the street, a coalition of radical nationalists and Islamists.”

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In an interview on National Public Radio on Tuesday, Powell admitted that new elections Bush called for might keep Arafat in power. “We will deal with the circumstances as we find them,” he said.

A senior State Department official later clarified that Washington hopes that Arafat will “‘work himself out of a job,” language criticized by some analysts in the region as naive.

Powell, in an interview with “CBS Evening News,” expressed confidence that new Palestinian leaders would surface if they believed that democratic elections would occur and power could be spread beyond one or two individuals.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned of a different scenario: The elections could put extremists in power legally.

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Some Israelis, meanwhile, said Bush’s speech was too vague on the process for achieving his ends; they warned that it did not create a vision but potentially a vacuum in which either the status quo will continue or extremist elements will prosper.

“Those who dreamed that the president’s speech would spark new hope had their dreams dashed,” Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, said Tuesday.

“Bush proposed a peace process and buried it with his own words. Even Arafat’s opponents will come to his defense in the face of the American tyranny.”

The core problem, as some Israelis saw it, is that Palestinians face a list of significant and immediate demands--including a virtual order to abandon the father of Palestinian nationalism--while rewards loom years away.

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“Now they are like the Portuguese, Spanish or Italian teams at the World Cup, with one distinction: They had hopes, but suddenly, in the middle of the game, the referee pulled a red card on their team and ordered it off the field,” Israeli political commentator Hemi Shalev wrote Tuesday.

“The problem is, of course, that the Palestinians are not embittered European soccer fans, but a violent and desperate people that expresses its frustration by means of monstrous suicide bombing attacks.”

Others worried that Bush, in essentially embracing the Israeli government’s position that Arafat should not be part of a new peace process, could embolden Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to proceed with military actions against the Palestinians.

Responding to recent suicide bombings, Sharon dispatched tanks and troops across the West Bank, taking over towns and confining hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to virtual house arrest.

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“This is not just a green light for Sharon,” said one Western diplomat. “Bush’s foot is on the accelerator.”

For its part, the Bush administration clearly is just beginning to sort through what steps it should take to translate the president’s initiative into reality.

“Now that we have a road, we have to develop a road map,” the State Department’s Boucher said when asked about implementing the U.S. plan.

But the lack of specifics on how to proceed sparked questions Tuesday about the plan’s viability--and even why Bush decided to give the speech before developing a fuller strategy.

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Wright reported from Washington and Wilkinson from Jerusalem. Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Calgary, Canada, contributed to this report.


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