Behind Bush's Mideast About-Face

As world opinion turned against his handling of rising Israeli-Palestinian violence, the President saw no choice but to alter course

By Richard S. Dunham

On Apr. 3, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay took to the podium at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. -- where Winston Churchill delivered his famous "Iron Curtain" speech 56 years ago -- and aggressively defended President Bush's strong pro-Israel tilt in the war-torn Middle East. Denouncing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's "evil campaign of death against Israeli civilians," the Texas Republican praised Bush for "standing strongly with Israel" and "resisting the constant calls to force Israel back to the negotiating table."

DeLay should have checked with the White House because, 24 hours later, the President sawed off the limb Delay was standing on. Bush strongly urged Israel to end its campaign to crush Arafat's Palestinian Authority and return to the negotiating table DeLay belittled.

Bush's impassioned Apr. 4 speech in the White House Rose Garden came amid increasing international pressure on his Administration to step up its involvement in the shattered Middle East peace process. Allies and adversaries alike had been pleading with the President for days to use whatever leverage he has left to convince Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to abandon a military campaign that has isolated his country from every friend in the world save one, the U.S.

Why? Despite the urgings of hardliners like DeLay, Bush felt compelled to adopt a more neutral approach, say senior Administration officials. While the President strongly feels that terrorism, in the form of Palestinian suicide-murders, cannot be rewarded, he concluded that Sharon's heavy-handed tactics -- and the stunningly strong backlash from Arab nations and non-Islamic countries alike -- made a more passive approach untenable. Here are some of the key reasons why Bush changed his tune:

Strongman Sharon. The U.S. received intelligence indicating that Israel, despite private American pleas for proportionate retaliation against terrorist targets, was considering stepping up its offensive and possibly crossing international borders into Lebanon. Only by delicately -- but publicly -- distancing himself from Sharon's tactics could Bush keep his credibility in the Arab world.

In addition, some Bushies were angered when Sharon on Apr. 3 refused to let U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni meet with Arafat. At that point, some inside the Administration became convinced that Sharon wants only to eradicate Arafat as a political force, rather than to persuade him to control terrorism in Palestinian territory. Sharon's snub of Zinni "set off a number of things" in Washington, says a senior Administration official. The bottom line: Although Bush has little faith in Arafat to keep his word, he's no longer willing to bet the Crawford ranch on Sharon, either.

When Bush made up his mind, he didn't call Sharon personally to tell him of the new U.S. position. Instead, he left it to Secretary of State Colin Powell to tell the Israeli leader that Bush "would have to take some action" to try to resume peace talks, a U.S. official says.

Fear of Escalation. The President became convinced that the war could spread to Lebanon and Syria, possibly prompting a military response by the Syrians. The Administration "came to the conclusion that the President had to act to try to stop what we saw as a spiraling level of violence that might expand beyond the current area," says one senior Administration official. To head off possible Israeli incursions, the White House decided it was necessary to speak publicly.

International Anger. Some Bush Administration officials admit to being surprised by the anti-Israeli and anti-American demonstrations on the streets of Arab capitals. The spontaneous street protests put enormous pressure on the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to abandon the Middle East peace process and return to a de facto state of war with Israel.

Some Bush advisers feared possible destabilization of the governments in Amman and Cairo. The Administration "saw a deteriorating situation with some of our best friends in the region," says one official, "but, more important, [with] some of Israel's best Arab friends in the region, with whom they had developed solid relations over the years."

Egyptian officials were clearly worried. In response to the grassroots furor, Egypt severed all diplomatic and economic ties to Israel, except for those that benefited the Palestinian people. The Administration saw the situation falling apart so quickly that it would "close off a path to peace" and might make it impossible "to put Humpty Dumpty together again," according to one American policymaker. "Only the U.S. could [salvage the peace process] in these circumstances."

Bush's Prestige. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said on Apr. 5 that Bush "is not spending a whole lot of time worrying about his political risks." But polls and diplomatic dispatches have made it clear that the Administration's low-profile, pro-Israel approach was controversial. A Zogby Poll released on Apr. 5 found that two-thirds of Americans think the President should pressure both Israel and the Palestinians -- not just Arafat -- to resume political negotiations. A similar number believe that both Sharon and Arafat share responsibility for the bloodshed. Around the world, from France to Saudi Arabia, polls show overwhelming disapproval of Bush's handling of the Middle East situation, at least prior to Apr. 4.

Bush can keep insisting that he doesn't care about polls. But he does care about his relationships with key allies. And he decided that something needed to be done.

How to Most Effectively Fight Terrorism. Since September 11, Bush has declared again and again that you're either against terrorism, or you're for it. When terrorists struck repeatedly in Israel, he felt obliged to support efforts by Sharon to root them out. Indeed, Sharon often quoted Bush to justify his draconian response.

Bush and Sharon have a fundamental disagreement when it comes to anti-Israeli terrorism: Sharon views Arafat as the leader of the terrorist movement, while Bush sees Arafat as a not-very-trustworthy leader of the Palestinian people who might still be pressured into cracking down on terrorism.

The President decided to give Arafat another chance to prove that he's willing and able to quell murderous extremists in his independence movement. "If this works," says one Bushie, "the terrorists are not the big winners, the terrorists are the big losers."

Saddam Who? The Administration has come to realize that it can't take any military action against Iraq, as some hawks are urging, unless it is seen as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian war. By demonstrating to the Arab world that he's seeking an independent state of Palestine, Bush is hoping to avoid a diplomatic meltdown if and when he takes action against Saddam Hussein.

Even among close allies such as Britain and France, Bush's pro-Israel tilt had created a domestic political backlash for their leaders. By taking a more prominent and balanced role in the Middle East, Bush gives himself more maneuvering room to deal with Baghdad.

It's impossible to tell whether the new American initiatives will yield long-term benefits. "Unfortunately, it's far from clear that any U.S. action can correct the mistakes of failed leaders like Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Bush realizes that. But he also realizes that without trying, he was dooming the peace process to failure for years to come.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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