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March 09, 2003

Bush Freezes Mideast Plan During Crisis in Iraq

This is huge

NY Times reports.

"In a sharp rebuff to European allies, Russia and the United Nations, the Bush administration has decided not to put forth a plan for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians until after the crisis in Iraq is resolved, administration officials say.

Negotiations aimed at drafting a three-year-long, step by step "road map" leading to the creation of a Palestinian state have been under way between the United States and these partners for nearly a year, but the administration has come under increasing pressure of late to adopt and publish the plan formally as the likelihood of a war with Iraq has risen. (One would think that just when the US was entering a war, the last thing they would want is divert their attention to Israel)

As recently as December, President Bush met with European leaders and the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, all of whom wanted the peace plan published immediately to ease the anger of Arabs in the Middle East who charge that the United States has been single-mindedly focused on Iraq. (This is a phoney issue. The issues are unrelated and there will be little anger in the street and who cares)

Those who met with Mr. Bush said they had won assurances that the plan would be published as soon as the Israeli elections were completed in late January.

Now, officials say, Mr. Bush has changed his mind and regards the December pledge as unrealistic. The administration's decision not to proceed with publishing the plan — a seven-page document that calls for reciprocal steps that would also include replacing Yasir Arafat as the Palestinian leader and an end to attacks on Israel — has infuriated the Europeans and poisoned the atmosphere even as the administration has struggled to secure the allies' support for its possible war against Iraq. ( Infuriated Europeans? Give me a break. This is nothing compared to the hard time the Euopeans are giving the US in the UN.)

Among the angriest is Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, whose aides say has pleaded with Mr. Bush to become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. (Nonsense. Blair just made a speech in which he specifically omitted linkage.)

But administration officials say that it makes no sense to publish the peace plan and push the effort now with a possible war on the horizon, with anxiety in Israel deepening over being attacked during a war with Iraq and a multibillion-dollar Israeli request for American military aid on the table. (I agree)

American officials also say that publishing a document calling for the removal of Mr. Arafat may upset recent progress among the Palestinians in choosing a prime minister as a step toward having him cede power. They say that more work also needs to be done to accommodate Israeli objections to the plan. (This is nonsense. Bush is quite public as to wanting the removal of Arafat and the appointment of a PM)

"In the real world, the ability to achieve a peace settlement does not turn on whether you publish a road map this week or next," an administration official said. "It turns on publishing it when it is most likely to elicit positive responses and be helpful."

Without saying so directly, administration officials suggest that a successful outcome in Iraq, particularly a swift military victory, would give the United States enormous leverage to bring about a settlement. (Leverage with whom)

But the Europeans see it differently, something that was obvious at the United Nations Security Council on Friday, when the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, and many other speakers cited the absence of peace efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis as a far greater threat to stability than Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons in Iraq. (If they want stability, they should stop supporting Arafat)

Privately, many charge that Mr. Bush, on the eve of a possible war, does not want to do anything to anger Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. Among other reasons, they say that the United States does not want Mr. Sharon to intervene in the war even if Israel is attacked by Iraqi missiles, lest this direct Arab countries' anger at Israel. (This is not about angering Sharon. The liberals make it sound like US policy is made in Jerusalem. America does what it thinks is in its best interest)

"Let's face it, the road map is dead," a senior European diplomat said. "This administration will never do anything opposed by Sharon."

Another European diplomat involved in drafting the plan said that without a published plan, a war would cause the Arab world to erupt with rage directed at the United States. "There was a lot of dismay when the road map was put off before, and the dismay right now is even worse," the diplomat said. (We'll see just how much eruption of rage there is. I would guess none.)

Still another said that publishing the plan was the only way to keep hope alive among Muslims in the Middle East. "Without hope, the power of extremists will only grow," he said. (Wrong, hope is what keeps the extremists going. Kill hope of success and you kill them.)

Administration officials say that such comments are unfair and that after an Iraq war the administration would be prepared to press Israel to make the concessions for peace that Mr. Sharon has said in principle Israel would have to accept. (If Sharon has agreed to accept concessions, why would the Administration have to press Israel?)

But the decision to put off consideration of the plan is widely seen as a rebuff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who has backed the Europeans and urged Mr. Bush to intensify the American commitment to Middle East peace efforts, to placate both Arab countries and European allies being courted over Iraq.

Mr. Powell is described by aides as believing with the Europeans that the stalemate over the peace plan has hampered the American ability to get approval of a resolution on Iraq at the Security Council.

State Department officials say that management of Middle East policies has increasingly been taken over by the White House, where Elliott Abrams, a passionate advocate of Israel, has recently taken over the Middle East portfolio on the National Security Council staff. Three aides under him who were identified with the pro-peace-plan position have recently resigned leading to speculation in the administration that their departure had cemented Mr. Bush's basic pro-Israel position.

The "road map" plan, in its current form, is a timetable for reciprocal steps by Israel and the Palestinians, phased in over three years. Mr. Sharon has said many times that he accepts the concept of the plan but he argues that it contains ambiguities dangerous to Israel's interests. (He accepts the plan but wants everything in it changed.)

To reassure the impatient Arab countries that the peace plan was endorsed by Mr. Bush, the White House arranged for the president to reiterate his commitment to it in a speech on Iraq 10 days ago. The statement of commitment was also meant to assuage the fear of Mr. Blair and others that the administration's commitment to the peace plan was wavering.

Israel's main objections have won sympathy at the White House. They focus on the fear that there is not enough of a guarantee that Mr. Arafat will be replaced by leadership that controls both the Palestinian finances and security apparatus. Israel also fears that the plan calls for it to take irreversible steps — like pulling out troops and freezing settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — in return for amorphous commitments by the Palestinians to reduce violence.

Mr. Sharon's aides make no secret of their disdain for the whole idea of involving the Europeans, Russians and United Nations in monitoring progress on the Palestinian side. They say that they do not want the French to play such a role, since the French are maintaining that Mr. Hussein is disarming.

American officials say that the plan fully reflects Mr. Bush's vision for a Palestinian state as laid out in his speech on the matter last summer and that many strides have been made in recent weeks to select new leadership to replace Mr. Arafat.

Administration officials reject the charge that Mr. Bush has never criticized Israel. They point out that it is long-standing American policy for Israel to show restraint in suppressing Palestinian violence and to ease on curbs on the movements and economic activities of the Palestinians.

They note that Mr. Bush has not hesitated to criticize Mr. Sharon when Israel seemed to be using heavy force to put down Palestinian uprisings — though no such criticism was made in the last week over Israeli actions in Gaza — on the grounds that these actions are simply drawing the Palestinian people to rally all the more around Mr. Arafat. (Why shouldn't Israel use whatever force is necessary? Why does everyone expect Israel to tolerate the killings?)

When Mr. Bush spoke the other day of an end to Palestinian violence as a necessity before the phased end to settlement activity by Israel, some in Israel saw this as a more pro-Israel position than in the past. But administration aides point out that Mr. Bush said the same thing in his major speech on the subject last June 24. (The road map ignores all the conditions precedent in the June speech, so we are back to first principals.)

Some outside experts who have criticized what they see as the administration's lack of involvement in the Middle East negotiations say they can understand why it makes sense to put off pushing the plan until after Iraq is settled.

Dennis B. Ross, the Middle East peace negotiator in the Clinton administration, said that the recent developments among the Palestinians in selecting new leadership were potentially significant, and that putting the road map idea into a deep freeze until after an Iraq war was a defensible idea. The problem, he said, is that the United States has not leveled with its allies on its intentions."