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U.S. Shift Undermines Efforts for Mideast Peace, Arabs Say

Times Staff Writers

Arab leaders charged Thursday that the United States, by recognizing Israel’s claims to major settlements in the West Bank, could no longer be viewed as an honest broker for the Middle East peace process.

But the Bush administration insisted that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s initiative for the Gaza Strip and West Bank could restart the peace process by removing Israel’s presence in Gaza. And it said the move would not hinder U.S. efforts to shore up Arab support for creating a stable interim government in Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in a spate of appearances and phone calls, sought to limit any damage from President Bush’s announcement Wednesday. But many Arab leaders, as well as Palestinians, were enraged by the shift in U.S. policy.

“It undermines hope for a just and comprehensive peace, inflames feelings of enmity toward America and opens the door toward retaking these rights by force, through all legitimate means of resistance,” Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said.

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Bush, in a fundamental shift in Middle East strategy, said Wednesday that “in light of new realities on the ground ... it is unrealistic to expect” Israel to fully return to the boundaries that existed before the 1967 Middle East War. And in endorsing Israel’s plan to unilaterally leave Gaza, Bush also adopted the Israeli position that Palestinian refugees should not expect to return to former homes in Israel.

Bush’s decision presented a diplomatic snare for friendly Arab governments, where popular disgust was already rampant over the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the bloodshed of the Palestinian uprising and the stalled Middle East peace negotiations. Emotions have been particularly sharpened in recent weeks by Israel’s assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and the mounting violence in Iraq.

Diplomats and politicians in the United States and abroad were divided over whether the reaction would make it more difficult for the U.S. to achieve its goals in Iraq.

But Arab diplomats said the administration had blindsided two of its most sympathetic Arab leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who met with Bush in Crawford, Texas, on Monday, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who is scheduled to visit Washington next week.

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And it was clear that Bush’s latest Middle East envoy would be flying into a diplomatic headwind today as he began a visit to the region in an attempt to shore up support for U.S. policy in Iraq.

The envoy, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, a gruff diplomatic troubleshooter with deep contacts in the Arab world, will seek to reassure Iraq’s neighbors that the United States will not abandon Iraq, that it has a plan for political transition and reconstruction and that it wants help from other countries, a State Department official said.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said that Bush’s remarks Wednesday would make it “much more difficult” for Armitage to do his job.

One Arab diplomat, who declined to be identified, said the developments would surely create more turmoil in the region and “it could, yes, even instigate more acts of terror,” including by insurgents in Iraq.

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Other European and Arab diplomats were skeptical that the news would further inflame Iraq.

“Iraq has so many more overwhelming problems, I don’t think this will be on the top of people’s minds,” said a second Arab diplomat. “The grievances of those who are resorting to violence there are so great, I don’t think they need more motivation.”

The Bush administration is betting that Iraq’s neighbors, no matter how irate they may be over the Israeli-Palestinian issue, are more worried that chaos in Iraq would endanger their own security.

“There’s a lot of concern in the Arab capitals about this, but not one of these countries, especially in the [Persian] Gulf, can afford to say that ‘because of President Bush’s statement, we’re going to withdraw our support for a smooth transition in Iraq,’ ” said the State Department official, who declined to be identified. They should support the United States in trying to stabilize Iraq “because they view it as a matter of vital strategic importance in the region,” the official said.

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Nevertheless, an Arab League spokesman in Cairo said that the U.S. endorsement of the Sharon plan on Wednesday was “a fundamental milestone in the Arab-Israeli conflict” and that, because Washington had “adopted Israel’s position,” it could no longer be considered an “honest broker” for peace.

The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, went further, saying Bush’s move “cancels all frameworks and it represents dangerous developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Saudi Arabia, in a statement early today, said it was “surprised” by Bush’s move.

Sharon’s plans, “if cemented ... will complicate peace opportunities and cripple the peace process,” the statement said. “Instead of building on previous decisions and agreements, these views threaten to contradict those decisions and annul those agreements.”

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Powell, in repeated appearances Thursday, said that the U.S. had not abandoned its role as an honest broker for peace. He insisted that the Sharon plan offered “an opportunity, for the first time in 37 years, to see settlements being emptied. And this is the beginning of a process. It is not the end of a process.”

Powell noted that Sharon had committed himself to withdrawing Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and removing all settlements in Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank.

He argued that Bush, in allowing Israel to keep other major West Bank settlements and resettle Palestinian refugees from Israel into a new Palestinian state, was “merely commenting on the reality, and it’s a reality that people have known for years and years and years.”

Repeating a long-held U.S. position, Powell pledged that the final settlement was for Israelis and Palestinians to work out, not for the United States to dictate.

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Other officials noted that the deal included an unequivocal commitment from Sharon to the U.S.-backed peace initiative, or “road map,” for side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states, as well as a reaffirmation that a fence Israel is building does not represent a permanent border.

“It’s going to certainly roil the waters and create more problems for the credibility of the United States in the region,” said Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

“In [the Arab] view, we have tilted so far to Sharon that we can’t be a mediator anymore. So it’s going to make it very difficult to move the road map process along, even if we want to -- which I’m not sure we do,” Walker said, reflecting widely held skepticism that Bush would impose a solution on Sharon.

Powell on Thursday spoke by phone with Mubarak, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei and King Abdullah.

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On Wednesday, Mubarak had warned Israel against imposing its “disengagement” plan instead of negotiating with the Palestinians.

Walker said he doubted that Mubarak had been informed of details of the U.S. deal during his visit with Bush on Monday, “because he wouldn’t have stood stolidly like that” next to the president in Texas in apparent support of what he understood to be Bush’s Mideast agenda.

Egyptian diplomatic officials, still in Texas, did not return telephone calls for comment.

Some Arabs accused Bush of campaign-season pandering to Jewish voters.

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“President Bush continues to reconfigure international law to suit his presidential campaign needs, and this is very dangerous,” said George Jabbour, a Syrian lawmaker.

Lebanese President Lahoud in a statement called Bush’s decision “illegitimate” and urged Arab leaders to call for an emergency session in the United Nations to oppose the newly articulated U.S. policy.

Efron reported from Washington and Stack from Cairo. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.


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