Bush Warns That He Will Assign Blame for Lack of Progress on Mideast Peace

President Bush apparently has decided that the way to restart the stalled Middle East peace process is to threaten to blame Israel and the Arab countries publicly for the lack of progress.

“We need to have more progress, and we need to have it sooner,” the president said Monday during a news conference at his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

“I think there’s a lot of people wondering what in the world is going on,” he said. “At some point, I think I will owe the American people my view of the details I am not willing to discuss right now.”

Bush called the news conference to announce the nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Clarence Thomas to replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But the questions soon turned to the Middle East.

Bush said he has received a commitment to the Middle East peace process from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. “But, frankly, I would like to see us further along on some of the details,” he added.

The president said he has no “time frame” for going to the public. In May, Bush said he would make a speech on the Middle East once he found the “proper venue.”

While he apparently has not found it yet, the president made clear he believes he owes it to the American people to eventually explain the U.S. proposals for talks between Israel and the Arab states.

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir sent a letter to Bush rejecting U.S. proposals to have a U.N. observer at a peace conference sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union. Shamir was responding to a letter from Bush urging Middle East leaders to be more flexible.

Shamir also rejected a proposal to reconvene the peace conference periodically if direct talks between Israel and the Arabs ran into intractable obstacles.

Israel wants the conference to be purely a ceremonial opening for direct talks and rejects any U.N. involvement in the peace negotiations.

The U.S. proposals were aimed at bringing Syria into negotiations, since Damascus has insisted that the talks be under the auspices of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

But Syria has not yet replied to the letter from Bush outlining his proposed compromise.

If blame for the deadlock were applied to Israel and the Arab states evenhandedly, it would likely hurt Israel disproportionately.

NO LINKAGE TO LOAN GUARANTEES

Bush sought to exercise such evenhandedness at his news conference Monday, when he again said Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are “counterproductive” to the peace process.

But the president also seemed to acknowledge objections from American Jewish groups to blaming Israel for the lack of progress, when the Arab states have shown no sign of willingness to enter direct talks with Israel.

“I want to be fair,” Bush said. “There are other things about other countries that are counterproductive to the peace process. I’d love to see direct talks between these countries.”

While presidential criticism of Jerusalem would not be expected to affect the $3 billion in economic and military aid the United States provides Israel each year, it could hurt chances for the $10 billion in loan guarantees Israel is expected to seek from the United States in September to help absorb Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants over the next five years.

Administration officials have been warning privately for the past few weeks that unless Israel halts building and expanding settlements, the president may not support the loan guarantees.

Bush said Monday that there is no linkage between Israel’s settlement and the loan guarantees, in which the United States would act as a cosigner on the loans Israel would seek from private banks.

“But I do think, and I have said this over and over again, that it is against U.S. policy for these settlements to be built,” he added.

“We have not changed our position on settlements, and we are not going to change our position on settlements,” he stressed.

Despite his gloomy assessment, Bush said he still has hope that progress can be made in the Middle East in the wake of the Persian Gulf War.

“I am told the credibility of the United States of being a catalyst for peace is still very strong and very good” in both Israel and the Arab countries, he said.

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