Bush to Commit Himself to Mideast Peace Effort

Times Staff Writer

President Bush will pledge today his “full personal commitment” in a U.S.-led effort to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a senior White House official said Thursday.

In a commencement address in South Carolina, the president will urge Israel and the Arab world to take the crucial first steps to end half a century of hostilities -- and end more than two years of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli crackdowns. When the U.S. recently unveiled a “road map” for peace, experts said its chances for success depended in part on Bush’s willingness to personally promote the plan.

In his speech, Bush also will press for a sweeping democratic transformation of the Middle East and call for the creation within a decade of a free-trade area including the region’s 23 nations and the United States, the official added.

“The president believes there is a unique opportunity for America and the world to extend liberty and freedom to a troubled region of the world and this pursuit of liberty is, over the long run, what will create the conditions for a last peace,” the White House official said.


The president also will announce plans for a U.S. conference next month in Jordan, to be hosted by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, to promote three principles critical to reform: political freedom, economic growth and education.

With Powell set to begin talks in the region this weekend, Bush said Thursday that he was “very optimistic” about the prospects for the new road map.

“Of course we’re going to make progress. Absolutely,” he said at an Oval Office appearance with Qatar’s emir, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani.

Bush said he was counting on the Arab world to “assume its responsibilities of stopping the funding of terror and working with the Palestinian Authority to encourage the habits of democracy and freedom.”

But deep differences between Israelis and Palestinians over those first steps in the renewed peace process may have already undermined Powell, who sets off tonight for an eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe.

As so often happens in the peace process, the problem with the road map boils down to a chicken-and-egg argument over whose move comes first and on what issues.

Israel already has made clear that it does not intend to talk about specifics of the map or ease up on its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip until the new Palestinian leadership disarms and detains extremist groups -- and until Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with Bush in Washington this month.

Meanwhile, new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas wants to negotiate with radical groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad rather than round up dozens or hundreds of militants. Israel says talks are not enough to warrant easing up on border closings, turning over tax revenues or ending Jewish settlement expansion.


A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said negotiations were just a delay. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are “just kicking the can down the road. It will allow them to replenish stocks, train more cadres and prepare more suicide bombers. That’s not solving the problem. They’re opposed to peace altogether.”

Sharon praised Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, as a “partner” for peace. “I know him well. I have met him a number of times,” Sharon said in a local television interview preceding Powell’s arrival Saturday.

“I have no problem shaking his hand,” he said. “I think he is one of the [Palestinians] who understand it is not possible to defeat Israel with terror. I see him as a partner.” But Sharon’s right-wing government expects the Palestinians to take concrete action before Israeli troops begin a phased withdrawal to the borders before the latest uprising began in September 2000.

As a model of the sort of action they expect Abbas to take, Israeli officials cite the steps taken by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to confront and disarm the Irgun and Stern Gang militias. Ben Gurion’s actions, Israeli officials say, were painful but necessary to create a central democratic authority and a new state.


“In the same way, the Palestinian Authority has to deal with the infrastructure of these groups and delegitimize the suicide bombers,” the Israeli official said.

But Palestinians, with backing from the wider Arab world, contend that disarming the militants will spark a civil war among the Palestinians and defer or destroy prospects for the road map to begin to be carried out.

“If Israel wants the road map to succeed, it has to give Abu Mazen something concrete to take to his people to show things are getting better because they have a new prime minister. Then he can use that to negotiate a deal with Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” a senior Arab official said.

“But if he comes with nothing in his hand, he has no credibility to demand anything for anyone.”


In an interview with Reuters this week, the Palestinian leader called “unacceptable” attempts by the Israelis to impose conditions or ask for changes in the road map, a plan backed by the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia.

“The Israelis must accept it so it can be swiftly implemented,” he said. “We were told by the Americans they are determined to see the road map implemented, therefore it is their duty to see to it that Israel accepts it and implements it.”

In advance of Powell’s visit, Sharon also said Thursday that he was willing to reopen peace talks with Syria and “any Arab nation” without preconditions.

“The Syrians will of course have demands on us and we will for sure have demands on them. We are ready to sit and discuss these issues,” Sharon said in an Israeli television interview.


But Sharon said Israel would wait to see the outcome of U.S. negotiations with Syria and Lebanon, which Powell began last weekend, to see if both nations take actions against militant groups targeting Israel.