Bush Being Urged to Back Israel As Battle over Peace Plan Looms

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has been pressing President Bush to make a strong statement of support for Israel that would bolster Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whose peace plan is facing stiff opposition from elements within his own party.

President Bush reportedly assured a dozen senators who met with him last Friday that he would publicly reaffirm the U.S.-Israeli relationship sometime before July 5, when Shamir is due to present the plan to the Likud Central Committee.

But as of Wednesday afternoon, the president had not done so.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who attended the White House meeting, said in a telephone interview that it “is not fair to say” Bush agreed to issue a statement.

But the senators “expect him to address himself in some manner to the prime minister and the people of Israel,” the senator said.

Metzenbaum would not comment on speculation that the senators had sought a statement from Bush that could be construed as specifically supportive of Shamir’s initiative.

Among other things, the plan calls for Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip leading to negotiations on Palestinian self-rule and eventually the final status of the administered territories.

Although the Israeli Cabinet endorsed the plan by a 20-6 vote on May 21 and it was subsequently approved by the Knesset, some of the most powerful Likud ministers oppose it.

ASSURANCE U.S. ISN’T ‘BACKING OFF’

Ariel Sharon, the minister of industry and trade, is leading the opposition. He convened the Central Committee, of which he is secretary, with the intention of having it reject the peace plan or distort it with amendments.

Sharon is backed by Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, who is minister of construction and housing, and Yitzhak Moda’i, the minister of economies and planning who heads Likud’s Liberal Party wing.

Shamir clearly will need all the help he can get to line up his own party behind the plan.

Metzenbaum said the senators “felt with regard to timing it would be appropriate for Bush to publicly indicate his posture vis-a-vis the State of Israel, which some in Israel have been concerned about.”

He said the delegation was seeking a private or public statement to Shamir that would “make clear to Israel, as well as to the rest of the world, that Israel is a major ally” and that the United States is “not backing off from previously stated positions.”

The meeting with Bush was initially sought by Metzenbaum and Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), who approached the Senate Democratic and Republican leadership with the idea.

After the meeting, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters that Bush “reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel, speaking of unwavering and unquestioned support, because Israel is a steadfast ally and friend.”

“Israel is the first among equals in the region and Israel is, in fact, going through a difficult period, (which) the president fully understands,” Fitzwater said.

At the meeting, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) handed the president a list of 14 terrorist incidents allegedly perpetrated by constituent groups of the Palestine Liberation Organization since the start of the U.S. dialogue with the PLO last December.

Bush was accompanied by several of his top aides, including: Secretary of State James Baker; National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Scowcroft’s deputy, Robert Gates; White House Chief of Staff John Sununu; and Dennis Ross, director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.

The senators present, in addition to Metzenbaum and Boschwitz, were Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

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