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Bush Mandate, Arafat Demise Lay Groundwork for New U.S. Peace Push

Americans wanting a peek at President Bush’s to-do list now that he has a mandate didn’t get much substance at his first post-election news conference, except for this: a Palestinian state. Bush’s thrice-repeated insistence on Palestinian statehood in a short press conference otherwise brimming with vague platitudes suggests a determination that Israel’s government would do well to heed.

“I think it’s very important for our friends the Israelis to have a peaceful Palestinian state living on their border,” Bush said in the first of his mentions in his Nov. 4 press conference.

If anyone had any doubts, he noted that he has espoused Palestinian statehood for two years, since his June 24, 2002, speech outlining the conditions for Middle East peace.

“I meant it when I said it, and I mean it now,” Bush said last week.

Also significant was his agreement with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Israeli-Palestinian peace was a centerpiece of stability in the region.

That contradicts a central doctrine of the president’s first term: that the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad — in other words, that creating a stable democratic regime in Iraq would have a spillover effect on the Palestinians.

With a major battle underway this way to retake the insurgent-filled Iraqi city of Fallujah, President Bush will be seeking all the support he can get from Europeans and from neighboring Arab states.

“Our numbers are down significantly in that part of the world,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, which tracks U.S. approval ratings in the Arab world. “I fear that absent a dramatic change in how we approach the region, the problems will remain.”

Blair wants a summit on the issue as soon as possible, and White House spokesmen have suggested that it will be high on the agenda when he and Bush meet in Washington later this week.

Still, Bush is by no means the second-term president unleashed that some Jewish Democratic strategists tried to raise as a bogeyman in the final days of the election campaign.

Bush’s commitment to Israel’s security and his friendship with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is unwavering, those close to him say. Central to it is his conviction that he cannot ask of other nations what he does not ask of the United States: As long as the United States does not truck with terrorists, nor should Israel, is his credo.

However, that equation could change, U.S, officials make clear, with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s departure from power.

Asked Nov. 5 how Arafat’s declining health impacted U.S. peacemaking, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher dangled the prospect of a Palestinian state.

“The president is committed to his two-state vision that he enunciated two years ago, trying to achieve a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state that can live side by side with Israel,” Boucher said.

The timing — a president released from campaign concerns and a Palestinian policy released from a tyrant — is too good to pass up, suggested Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that promotes U.S. engagement in the region.

“There is not likely to be a more opportune moment for the question of whether the Palestinians can move into a more democratic process,” Cohen said. “That constitutes a very important linkage between the election of the president to a second term and the future of Israel-Palestinian relations.”

Cohen, who meets regularly with U.S., Palestinian and Israeli leaders, says the sense of opportunity is pervasive, extending to Israel’s staunchest supporters in the administration, such as Eliott Abrams, the top Middle East official on Bush’s National Security Council.

“He is one of the people who is learning to be more interested in the solution to the Arab-Israeli problem,” Cohen said of Abrams. “He won’t be an obstacle.”

The linkage between the post-election and post-Arafat eras is not lost in Congress, where even the most steadfast of Israel’s supporters regret the opportunity missed in the summer of 2003 when Mahmoud Abbas — the moderate who demonstrated a willingness to deal seriously with Israel — grew tired of Arafat’s machinations and resigned as Palestinian Authority prime minister.

Pro-Israel congressmen on both sides of the aisle have said Israel and the United States could have done more to reinforce Abbas’ political hand against Arafat through substantive gestures, such as larger prisoner releases and a settlement freeze.

Now that Abbas is assuming the post-Arafat leadership along with fellow moderate Ahmed Qurei, two of Israel’s most unstinting supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives — Middle East subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a senior member of the International Relations committee — are leading a delegation to the region this week with the goal of prodding the sides forward.

“The confluence of events creates an opportunity for the United States to bring some order where order does not exist and bring some hope where hope is limited, both to the Israelis and to the Palestinians,” Wexler told JTA before he left. “We’re going to say for the umpteenth time that the Palestinians have an opportunity to advance their aspirations and dreams, and for the first time we hope they choose a peaceful path rather than a violent one.”

The emphasis on Palestinian statehood was prompted in part by pre-election remarks by Sharon’s top adviser, Dov Weisglass, who told Ha’aretz that Sharon’s plan to unilaterally leave the Gaza Strip would satisfy the Americans for now and would quash the prospect of statehood until the Palestinians have a more reliable leadership.

Bush administration officials were furious over the remarks, and Sharon quickly backtracked. Now that the election has passed, the administration is making it clear that it wants the Gaza pullout to go ahead — as a first step toward Palestinian statehood, not as an end in itself.

“We see the Israeli disengagement plan from Gaza and from some of the settlements on the West Bank as being a step that can lead us in that direction,” said Boucher, the State Department spokesman.

If it shows signs of movement, such a step-by-step approach might help Bush forge the alliances he needs in the region to assert control in Iraq and to roll back the growing influence of Iran.

Marwan Bishara, a Palestinian analyst based in Paris, said the key to success in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was to enlist regional help and avoid the grand promises of sweeping Arab reform that characterized Bush’s first term.

“You will need a president who will not raise hopes in order to crush them,” Bishara said.

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