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Bush Gingerly Re-enters Mideast Fray With Bid To Enlist Groups’ Support

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is turning to Jewish organizations to rally support for American efforts to kick-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In a top-level White House meeting Monday with Jewish communal leaders, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice announced the administration’s intention to step up efforts to advance the peace process, and said that Israel had “responsibilities” which it needs to live up to.

Sources said that Rice called the meeting in order to allay any fears that Jewish organizations might have that such efforts will lead to America’s pressure on Jerusalem. The country’s next top diplomat promised Jewish communal leaders that the administration would do nothing to compromise Israel’s security, but intends to become “actively and energetically” involved in transforming the Palestinian society into a democracy.

In pursuit of that goal, Rice said, Israel has “responsibilities” that it is expected to carry out. Rice did not elaborate, but participants understood the comments to mean that Israel should freeze settlement activity, dismantle illegal West Bank outposts and take measures to facilitate elections in the territories.

But comments regarding Israel’s role in jump-starting the peace process were a minor part of Rice’s presentation, participants said. The indisputable emphasis was on the need to generate sweeping change in Palestinian society, transforming it from an autocracy to a democracy following the death of Yasser Arafat.

The meeting comes as the administration is spearheading a concerted international effort to facilitate Palestinian presidential elections, set for January 9. Much of that work, diplomatic sources in Washington said, is done in private so as not to create the impression that America is attempting to influence the outcome of the vote.

Next week, in Oslo, administration officials are expected to encourage European, Arab and Asian governments to increase their financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, sources close to the administration said.

Administration officials are holding consultations with Congress over the terms under which America will supply direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, totaling — at least for now — $20 million. The administration does not need congressional approval to supply the aid, but the Bush administration decided to coordinate the aid with Congress nevertheless.

Congressional sources and sources close to the administration cited two reasons. First, they said, the administration does not want to create a conflict with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who recently expressed concern regarding the aid. The other reason, sources said, was that the administration is planning to supply more aid to the Palestinians in the future, and wants to diffuse future dissent. A spokesman for DeLay told the Forward that the Texas Republican is working with his colleagues and with the administration “to craft the appropriate package” that would come after reforms are implemented and would ensure accountability and transparency.

DeLay and the administration have reportedly agreed to a deal, under which the $20 million will be used to pay off Palestinian debts to Israeli companies.

Rice explicitly told participants in the Monday meeting that the administration sees the Gaza disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon not as an alternative to the American-backed “road map,” but as a tool to “accelerate” the implementation of the peace plan. Sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, the road map calls for reciprocal, synchronized Israeli and Palestinian steps, leading to peace negotiations and ending with the establishment of a Palestinian statehood as early as 2005.

Rice’s remarks sharply contradicted an early claim by Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s aide who negotiated the road map. In a recent interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Weisglass said that the objective of the disengagement plan was simply to deep-freeze the road map.

Participants described the Monday meeting with Rice as an attempt by the Bush administration to win Jewish support for its plans to advance the peace process. It was the first such meeting with Jewish communal leaders since Bush’s re-election. Also attending were Rice’s current deputy, Stephen Hadley, who was appointed by President Bush to succeed her as national security adviser, and Elliott Abrams, who handles the Middle East at the National Security Council. However, Rice was the only one who addressed the group.

Among the Jewish communal representatives participating in the meeting were officials at several major Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union and lobbying powerhouse American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But the administration also invited two left-leaning organizations — the Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom — that often operate outside of normal communal channels in order to promote the peace process. The Israel Policy Forum recently organized a letter to Rice, in which 70 communal leaders and philanthropists called for aggressive U.S.efforts to restart the peace process.

Rice’s staffers asked participants not to publicize the content of the meeting, but several attendees agreed to share their impressions on condition of anonymity.

They said Rice opened by stating that President Bush believes he was re-elected with a clear foreign policy mandate, which he intends to use. His main goals, she said, are to win the war on terrorism, to advance peace and democracy globally, and to re-create the Middle East in a way that will strengthen moderate voices in the Islamic world. All these goals will be served, she reportedly said, by American efforts to assist the Palestinians in building a democratic society.

Rice did not depart from comments made by Bush shortly after his re-election that Palestinians are chiefly responsible for ensuring progress. Like Bush, Rice emphasized the need for an end to Palestinian terrorism and for democratic reform. Unlike Bush, however, she put the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in a global context. Drawing a loose analogy between the Palestinian arena and the situation in Iraq, Rice said that striving for democracy is imperative because democracy brings long-term stability. Therefore, she said, efforts at democratizing are worthwhile even if, in the short run, they create a somewhat chaotic situation on the ground.

In the long run, she reportedly said, an imperfect democracy is better than the alternatives.

When asked if the president will expect Israel to pay a price for the participation of Europe and Egypt in advancing Palestinian reforms, Rice replied that people should have learned by now that “you don’t extract a price from this president.”

According to a report in Ha’aretz, which the Forward could not independently confirm, the administration has sided with the Palestinians in rejecting an Israeli plan to create a network of separate roads in the West Bank to be used by Palestinians. If true, the decision would mark a shift for the Bush administration, which previously signaled its support for the idea and promised to help raise international funds to make it happen.

Israel pitched the proposal as a way to ease travel restrictions of the Palestinians while increasing security for Jewish settlers on existing West Bank roads. The Palestinians opposed the idea, arguing that international endorsement of the plan would imply that the world community is acquiescing to a segregated, apartheid-like system in the West Bank and to Israel’s strengthening its hold on the territories.


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