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Trying to Explain Mideast Policy, Spokesman Gets Himself in Hot Water

As Saudi Arabia’s peace initiative gains steam in the international community, the Bush administration is having a hard time explaining why it is not moving full throttle with a new Mideast peace effort with the Saudi vision as its backbone.

The White House sees the Saudi proposal — which calls for normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors if Israel returns to its pre-1967 borders — as a possible blueprint for a long-range solution. Still, the United States thinks attention now must not focus that far down the line, but instead should aim to stop current Israeli- Palestinian violence.

Therefore, administration officials have praised the Saudi proposal as a “significant positive step,” but continue to call on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to crack down on violence.

When White House spokesman Ari Fleischer tried to do that on Thursday, however, he was accused of condemning President Clinton’s intensive peacemaking efforts in the Middle East.

“I think if you go back to when the violence began, you can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted,” Fleischer said. “As a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond where they were willing to go, that it led to expectations that were raised to such a high level that it turned into violence.”

Fleischer later said he was trying to answer a question about whether President Bush’s refusal to meet with Arafat had caused the violence, and that he merely wanted to emphasize the differences between the approaches of Bush and his predecessor.

“President Bush is intent to learn the lessons of all previous presidents and focus on what he thinks can be successful, which is an incremental approach based on the Mitchell” report — which called for an immediate end to violence, followed by confidence-building measures — “and not an attempt to have an immediate, comprehensive solution.”

That, Fleischer said, would raise expectations too high only to dash them, creating more trouble.

Fleischer also issued a written apology to President Clinton, saying his earlier comments “mistakenly suggested that increasing violence in the Middle East was attributable to the peace efforts that were under way in 2000.”

Fleischer’s goal, some analysts argue, was to curb the momentum that has gathered in the press and the international community since Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah spoke of his proposal almost two weeks ago.

A senior State Department official was sent to Saudi Arabia to confer with Abdullah, but the Bush administration has been urged to make greater efforts to push Israel and the Palestinians toward the Saudi vision.

In a New York Times interview Thursday, Arafat called for “a very important and very strong, very quick push from outside” to move the parties forward.

However, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration will not be pressured into forcing a deal on Israel that it doesn’t want.

“That’s what many people think when they say, ‘Get more engaged,’ or ‘You’re standing on the sidelines,’ ” Powell told The New York Times.

Analysts say Bush officials are trying to make clear they will not be pressured, while still showing enthusiasm for Arab support for the peace process.

“There is a balancing act by the Bush administration that on the one hand seeks to encourage any Saudi deal about peace with Israel,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This is especially important as the United States seeks Saudi support against terrorism and possible military moves against Iraq, and as Vice President Dick Cheney prepares to travel to the region in several weeks.

“On the other hand,” Makovsky said, “there are so many unanswered questions about what the Saudi initiative actually is that there is a danger in embracing something that is very vague at this point.”

Specifically, the initiative does not include details on the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees who abandoned their homes during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence — which Israel regards as a deal-breaker — or the Arab world’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.

The Bush administration wants to make clear that it will first try to reach a cease-fire, then discuss confidence building measures and final status issues.

Only then can Israel and the Arabs discuss normalizing relations, which is the crux of the Saudi proposal.

American Jewish leaders say they disagree with Fleischer’s apparent implications about Clinton — since retracted — but do agree that Clinton’s aggressive tactics ultimately didn’t work.

“The fact is when you push for peace, you either get peace or you end up with war,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Blame the circumstances, blame the historical process, but don’t blame Clinton.”

The Bush administration’s approach of dealing with the process incrementally is “a healthy one,” Foxman said.

Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said he believes Fleischer’s comments were born of frustration with the situation Bush inherited in the Middle East.

Other Jewish organizations criticized Fleischer’s implication that Clinton was responsible for the violence.

“It is the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to crack down on terror that is directly responsible for the upsurge in violence,” said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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