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Pro-Israel Activists Seek To Avoid Rift With Administration Over Peace Plan

WASHINGTON — Jewish lobbyists were in hair-trigger reaction mode this week: furious at the Bush administration for its plans to release an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, but wary of openly confronting the White House on the eve of war.

With his surprise decision to release the “road map” to peace — announced in a March 14 speech — President Bush was plainly threading a diplomatic needle. He seemed caught in an impossible squeeze, between Israel and its allies in the United States who object to any efforts to boost support for war by advancing the peace process, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose political survival could depend on such a linkage.

The apparent importance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Blair’s political future became clear days after the Bush speech: A key British Cabinet member, Clare Short, went back Tuesday on her threat to resign over the prime minister’s Iraq policy. Three other Labor Cabinet members did step down, but Parliament voted Tuesday in favor of a resolution authorizing that “all means necessary” be used to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

While Bush’s speech appeared to help prop up Blair, it sparked anxiety and anger among some Jewish communal leaders who had received tacit White House assurances that the road map would not be unveiled until after the Iraq war. The specter of an open confrontation with the Jewish commmunity comes at a particularly risky time for Bush, as an expected 5,000 pro-Israel activists prepare to descend on Washington in a week for the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Despite immediate White House attempts at damage control — including a meeting right after Bush’s speech between Jewish communal leaders and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — several pro-Israel lobbyists were voicing concern that the administration’s flip-flop on when to unveil the road map could eventually generate undue pressure on Sharon.

“Palestinian terrorism continues unabated and the reforms promised by the Palestinian Authority leadership are just beginning to emerge,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. “The Administration’s current initiative sets a terrible precedent by appearing to placate those nations who are opposed to America’s confrontation with Iraq.” Foxman added: “The damage of the Administration’s statement and its timing was compounded by British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s remarks, directly linking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq.”

The Orthodox Union issued its own critical statement, though its leaders have steadfastly and enthusiastically praised Bush’s handling of Middle East issues.

These sentiments were echoed on Capitol Hill, where staunchly pro-Israel legislators attacked Bush over the timing of his decision to present the road map, sponsored by the so-called Madrid Quartet comprised of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.

“On the brink of war, at the very last moment, Israel has become a pawn in the president’s strategy on Iraq, and that to me is very troubling,” said Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat on the House international relations committee.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — a Texas Republican and staunch White House ally who has called the quartet’s plan a “road map to destruction” — refused to comment directly on Bush’s speech. But the spokesman referred the Forward to DeLay’s condemnation of the road map during a speech at the O.U.’s Washington convention last week.

Despite reassurances provided by Rice, “We remain concerned,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Our concern is not the intent” of Bush and his advisers, Hoenlein said. “Our concern is that the road map could develop a dynamic of its own.”

Such a dynamic, Hoenlein told the Forward, could end up seriously undermining Bush’s previous commitment — announced in a June 24 speech — that negotiations on a Palestinian state would not begin until the Palestinian Authority underwent significant political reform and terrorism ceased.

Still, for now leaders at several Jewish groups, including Aipac, say they will not openly oppose the plan, citing a reluctance to criticize a war-time president who has until now been a dependable ally and is currently lobbying Congress to approve an aid package for Israel.

Asked why Jewish organizations were not more publicly critical, one activist in Washington said: “On the verge of war, who wants to be seen as being in conflict with a president that we consider so pro-Israel?” Another activist said that Bush “had banked so much credit over the last two years that what otherwise might have been seen as a capitulation, at this point is not.”

Perhaps the most important factor behind the muted criticisms was the Israeli government’s decision to voice public support for the president, while working behind the scenes to alter the current version of the road map.

“We see eye to eye with President Bush,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman in Jerusalem said. “We share his vision and we are of the conviction that once there is a Palestinian prime minister with real powers who will begin fighting to stop terror, then Israel will be willing to begin discussing a solution.”

But despite such comments, and although the plan has been devised in consultation with Israel, Sharon and his aides have let it be known that they have numerous concerns about the third and latest draft of the plan. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz recently reported that a team of experts appointed by Sharon prepared a counter-document proposing more than 100 changes to the current version of the plan.

Pro-Israel groups say they will work to produce a document more reflective of Bush’s June speech and more palatable to the government of Prime Minister Sharon. Aipac officials say this approach will prevail during their convention March 30 to April 1, as their members flood Capitol Hill to lobby for Israel.

“We will lobby for legislation that codifies President Bush’s June 24 speech,” said Aipac spokeswoman Rebecca Needler. “And we will lobby for a road map that implements the president’s vision of peace as laid out on June 24.”

The road map is expected to be submitted to Israel and the P.A. as soon as Yasser Arafat appoints a prime minister, following this week’s approval in the Palestinian Legislative Council of a law defining the powers of the new position. The appointment of a prime minister — which could come by the end of the week — had been demanded by the White House as the first in a series of reforms that the P.A. needed to enact before the peace process could be restarted. The candidate for the job is longtime Arafat deputy and Fatah co-founder Mahmoud Abbas, known by his nom-de-guerre Abu Mazen.

The publication of the road map could complicate Israel’s attempts to revise it. “Once the document is on the table, it is very difficult to backtrack,” Hoenlein said. However, Israel and its American backers note with satisfaction that Bush said in his recent speech that both Israel and the Palestinians are welcome to “contribute” to the document after its publication, indicating that the plan is still subject to change.

A key concern Israeli concern is the role that America’s partners will play in verifying the Palestinians’ compliance with the plan. Israel does not trust the three other members of the Madrid Quartet, and does not want to see them placed in the role of arbiter or referee over the plan’s implementation process. The plan involves a sequence of reciprocal steps taken by Israel and the Palestinians, eventually leading to the creation of a Palestinian state in less than three years.

Another major Israeli concern is the degree of independence and sovereignty that a Palestinian state would enjoy under the current plan. According to Israeli press reports, Sharon is demanding that the adjective “independent” be struck from the language of the road map.

Sharon’s government intended to submit its list of reservations to the Bush administration after the war with Iraq, based on a tacit understanding with Washington that the road map would not be officially submitted to the parties before the outbreak of hostilities.

But last week the Bush administration reneged on this understanding and said it would submit the plan within days, immediately after the P.A. officially appointed a new prime minister.

Jewish organization officials who participated in the meeting with Rice expressed particular concern over the timing of the president’s address. They complained that the speech was clearly meant to help him navigate through his administration’s diplomatic fiasco at the U.N. over an Iraq resolution.

Immediately after the speech — before she met with the Jewish community leaders — Rice gave a long interview to the popular Arabic-language satellite television station Al Jazeera in which she said that the United States may soon invite the new Palestinian prime minister to the White House.

Experts are divided over the extent to which Bush’s statement would actually speed up the road to peace. Some say that Bush allowing further re-negotiation of the road map language could stretch the process out endlessly. Others countered that even though the door was left open for further bargaining, major changes were unlikely to take place, since any changes made to the document after its publication would be subject to quid-pro-quo demands made by the opposing side.

Observers seem to agree, however, that the degree to which the road map will be pursued and implemented depends on American resolve to make Israeli-Palestinian peace not just a policy priority of the American government, but also a personal priority of the president.

“The only way this could ever work,” said University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, an expert on American policy in the Middle East, “is if the president personally holds its hand and follows it through.”

Meanwhile, according to an Associated Press report, Republican Senator John Warner, of Virginia, sent a letter to Bush last week urging that a plan to insert NATO peacekeepers into the territories be included in the road map.

Just hours before the expected launch of the American military offensive, Sharon and his Cabinet heard a new, updated assessment from Israel’s defense establishment and intelligence agencies, which reconfirmed the longstanding official view that the odds of an Iraqi missile attack were only “minimal.” Not taking any chances, however, the army called up civil defense and anti-aircraft reserve forces and ordered the population to prepare sealed rooms.

The intelligence officers told the ministers that the first 48 to 72 hours of the American campaign will be critical, because whatever limited ballistic capabilities Saddam possesses will most likely be wiped out in the ferocious American bombardment expected at the start of the offensive. The army was weighing a declaration of a “state of emergency” at the start of war, ordering citizens to stay home during the first few days of hostilities in Iraq, at least until the dust settles.

The Cabinet also ordered the country’s internal security services to go on high alert against a possible Iraqi-inspired terrorist campaign, although the intelligence analysts said there was no clear sign of that danger either. The government also decided to impose a closure on the territories, pointing to a danger of independent attempts by Palestinian terrorist groups to take advantage of the crisis.

Army forces in the north of the country were placed on alert, in case of a deliberate escalation by Hezbollah. But here, too, the steps appeared merely precautionary. Israeli intelligence believes that Hezbollah and its backers, Syria and Iran, are likely to lay low during the initial stages of the Iraqi war, at least until the battle picture becomes clear.

Despite the relatively benign intelligence analyses, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz issued a series of calculated warnings to Baghdad, which had the effect of ruffling feathers in Washington. Urging Saddam not to bring the war to Israel, Mofaz warned that Israel would not repeat the “mistake” of practicing “restraint” during the 1991 Gulf War. The inaction of then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s government, Mofaz said, had damaged the country’s deterrence capability in the Arab world.

Mofaz’s belligerent public stance reportedly raised some alarms in Washington. Sources said Sharon was asked to refrain from further public warnings in the hours leading up to the war.

Sharon was doing his utmost to please Washington in the days before the war, seeking to position himself as a loyal and well-behaved trooper in the beleaguered American coalition against Saddam. The prime minister’s goal appeared to be gaining diplomatic credit in the form of American good will, so as to improve his bargaining position in the Middle East diplomatic maneuvers expected right after the Iraqi campaign.

That, analysts say, was why Sharon played down apparent discrepancies in Bush’s position on the road map. In private conversations Sharon described the deviations as “tactical moves” meant to bolster the sagging political fortunes of his main ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and to improve America’s standing in Europe and the Arab world. Contrary to assertions in the press by anonymous State Department officials, Sharon maintained that Bush’s version of the road map is far from final, and that Israel will still be able to introduce significant changes after the Iraqi war ends.

Some of Sharon’s advisers, however, were less confident than their boss, voicing concern at Bush’s apparent abandonment of the effort to “completely neutralize” Yasser Arafat before restarting the diplomatic process. These advisers claim that the presentation of the road map to the Palestinians simply on the basis of the appointment of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister will inevitably complicate Israeli-American efforts to relegate Arafat to a purely ceremonial position. Although the Palestinian parliament this week boldly rejected Arafat’s attempts to whittle away at Abu Mazen’s proposed powers, the chairman continues to hold final decision-making authority on matters of security and negotiations with Israel.

The strategic goal of Sharon and his advisers is ultimately to undermine the road map and to exclude the three remaining members of the so-called Madrid Quartet — the European Union, United Nations and Russia — from active involvement in the peace process. That goal can be achieved, the officials believe, only if the United States achieves a swift and unequivocal victory against Saddam. That, they say, would enhance America’s diplomatic prestige in the Arab world and Bush’s own political standing at home. Any complications in the war, such as Saddam’s survival and subsequent emergence as a folk hero in the Arab world, would have a calamitous effect on America’s position and weaken the president’s personal stature. That, Israeli strategists believe, might ultimately force a sea change in American policy in the Middle East. A weakened Washington presumably would have to pursue support in Europe and the Middle East, and might be forced to pay the tab “with an Israeli coin,” as officials here put it.

Thus, despite the calm reaction in Israel to Bush’s statements on the road map, some officials were warning that the linkage created by Bush between the resolution of the Iraqi war and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could turn out to be a “diplomatic time bomb.” Sharon might lose American support for his preferred “sequential” peace process, with no defining timetables, and find himself fending off European-inspired efforts to cut to the chase — including a settlement freeze and final-status negotiations.

Because of this uncertainty, it is also unclear what political ramifications might ensue from a post-Iraq diplomatic initiative. If Sharon reaches understandings with the administration, the road will most likely be paved for a shakeup of the current coalition, with Labor replacing both the National Religious Party and the National Union, which are opposed to any and all concessions, even those currently countenanced by Sharon. On the other hand, if Sharon perceives an American drift toward Europe, he would most likely maintain the current makeup of the government in order to put up a united front against international pressures.

All in all, the most widely cited cliché in Israel this week was that one knows how wars begin, but never how they end. The imminent start of the Iraqi campaign thus plunged Israelis, both in and out of government, into a heightened state of anticipation and anxiety. Public opinion overwhelmingly supports the American offensive, but desperately hopes that the campaign against Saddam will end up being described in history books in the same terms as Israel’s Six-Day War of 1967: strong, swift and elegant.

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