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June 03, 2003

Concerned aides say Bush not in touch with key issues of peace

Like father like son: the vision thing? Clinton, like him or not, was a master of details. Bush seems indifferent.
President Bush, who today begins his first high-profile effort at Middle East peacemaking, is convinced that Israel must accept a Palestinian state to ensure its survival, according to current and former aides who have heard him discuss the subject. But they say he has shown little interest in the details of the complex disputes in the region and remains skeptical of intervening deeply in the negotiating process.
Bush often has a viscerally negative reaction when officials try to delve deeply into issues -- such as the final borders of Israel and Palestine, or the status of Jerusalem -- that are central to the conflict, according to people who have participated in discussions with the president. President Clinton at the end of his term debated those questions at length with Israelis and Palestinians, but Bush dismisses them as "all those old issues," two participants in interagency debates said.

The president has baffled some of his aides with comments they thought minimized the obstacles toward the two-state solution he talks about. For instance, the president has told aides the Israelis are wasting their money on expanding settlements in the West Bank because ultimately those projects will become housing developments for Palestinians.

Some aides suggest this is a naive view of the settlement issue, noting experts on both sides of the issue believe unchecked expansion of the settlements would make it impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. Other Bush advisers say the president's comments simply reflected his determination to create a Palestinian state.

The president's personal relations with Middle East leaders also plays a significant role in how he approaches the issues. His distaste for Yasser Arafat led to his call for new Palestinian leadership, but he is also uncertain whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon truly has a vision to achieve peace. The leader in the region who has won his greatest respect is Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who bluntly confronted the president last year over the Palestinian issue.[more]