Backing Israel on Terror, Bush Preps Postwar Push For a Settlement Freeze

Aides Gauging U.S. Jews’ Reaction

By Ori Nir

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has accepted Israel’s position that the Palestinian Authority must take action against terrorism and implement substantial reforms before Israel is required to begin implementing the internationally sponsored “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace, including a freeze on settlement activity.

At the same time, however, the administration has quietly begun preparing the ground for a rapid shift of gears and swift implementation of the road map after the Iraqi crisis has been resolved. Administration officials have held a series of private meetings with pro-Israel activists that are described as efforts to “take the temperature” of the organized Jewish community regarding a possible push for a postwar settlement freeze after Palestinian reforms are instituted.

This week’s deadly bus bombing in Haifa, which left at least 15 dead and 40 wounded, was not expected to affect the timing either of the war or the postwar diplomacy. The bombing, which broke a two-month lull in suicide bombings inside Israel, appeared to strengthen Israel’s case that an end to terrorism must precede any peace moves, and Israel was quick to blame Yasser Arafat’s P.A. for the attack. However, the White House suggested after the bombing that President Bush was not changing plans. “He will continue to pursue the path to peace,” said spokesman Ari Fleischer.

The convergence of views between Washington and Jerusalem on the timing of the peace process, clearly implied in Bush’s Middle East policy speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute, had been spelled out since then by senior administration officials in meetings with Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel activists.

Administration officials have indicated that despite pressure by European allies and Arab states, Washington intends to insist that the final version of the Israeli-Palestinian road map be published only after the Iraq crisis is resolved, whether through military action or otherwise.

Implementation of the road map may gain urgency in Washington, insiders say, if an American attack and subsequent military occupation of Iraq evoke anger in the Arab world. In such a case, the administration is likely to push both the P.A. and Israel to achieve a rapid breakthrough on the road toward peace. A quick breakthrough in implementing the road map, sources say, is likely to include an Israeli commitment to a settlement freeze, following meaningful Palestinian reforms and anti-terrorism action.

At the moment, Washington is deferring action on the road map because some senior officials contend that publishing it now may only complicate the campaign against Iraq, rather then simplify it. The delay also reflects the numerous Israeli objections to the document’s most recent draft. The main Israeli demand is that any Israeli concessions be preceded by clear proof that the P.A. is seriously fighting terrorism, a position that appeared hardened by this week’s bombing.

Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists in Washington said the administration had effectively accepted this Israeli position. “They understand that simultaneity is unacceptable, and that in order for Israel to be aboard, this will have to be a sequential, performance-based process,” said a pro-Israel activist in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In his speech last week, the president spoke about an end to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, which some right-wing American Jewish activists saw as an alarm signal for imminent American pressure on Prime Minister Sharon. Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his organization was “deeply disappointed by Bush’s bias against Israel, and his lack of understanding that Israel’s existence is the problem in Arabs’ eyes, not Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.”

But other activists and analysts agreed that Bush’s speech reflected a virtual convergence of views between the two leaders. Bush began his speech by stating which steps he expects the Palestinians to take. He said that following a regime change in Iraq, “Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders. True leaders who strive for peace; true leaders who faithfully serve the people. A Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful state that abandons forever the use of terror.” Only then, Bush said, “As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end.”

Meyrav Wurmser, head of the Center for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, called the speech “a huge victory for the state of Israel and for Sharon.” She added, “I don’t see any major difference of opinions between the two.”

Seconding her observation from the other end of the Washington think-tank spectrum, Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace said the administration had “basically adopted Israel’s position.”

“This reaffirms the view that any significant Israeli commitment on settlements is way down the line,” said Aronson, who edits a bimonthly report on Israeli settlement activity in the territories. He added: “This is not good news, from our perspective.”

Sources familiar with the preparation of Bush’s speech said the president was attempting to allay the concerns of his European and Arab allies, who complain that his preparations for war against Iraq are not being accompanied by serious steps to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly asked the president to talk about a settlement freeze and to commit himself personally to the road map, which Bush did. “Bush gave the Europeans what they wanted, but left plenty of room for the Israelis” by being ambiguous on detail, said a Jewish activist in Washington.

While indicating that Washington sees eye to eye with Jerusalem on the sequence of actions to be taken for restarting the peace process, administration officials have recently taken to pointing out in conversations with policy analysts and Jewish activists that the White House may expect Israel to move swiftly on implementing the road map after a war with Iraq. Bush’s Middle East advisers reportedly believe such swift movement may be needed to pacify Arab postwar wrath.

Preparations for a possible administration shift on settlements also include public statements by senior officials. The deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, has spoken twice in recent weeks about the need to tackle settlement activity. Last week, in testimony before the House budget committee, Wolfowitz described Palestinian violence and Israeli settlement activity as two problems hindering the peace process. “I think settlements are also a problem, as the president said, and we’ve got to address both,” Wolfowitz said.

The P.A., apparently anticipating American pressure on it, has made some recent moves toward reform. Last week, the official P.A. newspaper Al Ayyam published a draft of a new Palestinian constitution. In addition, Arafat is expected to announce the appointment of a prime minister “within days,” according to a statement issued last week by United Nations Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, following a meeting with Arafat in his Ramallah compound.

On terrorism, too, Palestinian movement had been seen before this week’s bombing. According to Israeli press reports, Israel’s intelligence agencies reported to the Cabinet this week that Arafat was trying to discourage violent activity against Israel. Until this week’s bombing Israel had suffered no civilian casualties in two months, the longest period since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. Israel responded to the Haifa bombing with an initial statement blaming the P.A. Arafat’s spokesmen denied any link and condemned the bombing.

Bush administration officials say that the president and his aides have not decided on a clear course of action on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts following the crisis with Iraq. “It all depends on how things will go with Iraq,” one official said, implying that the urgency of implementing the road map will depend on Arab and international reaction to a probable military campaign in Iraq.

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