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Bush Confronts Prime Minister With New Demands for Israel

By Alan Sipress

In dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East, President Bush has substantially broadened the range of issues up for immediate bargaining and confronted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the first time with unwelcome demands aimed at addressing Palestinian concerns.

Bush’s remarks Thursday included the harshest criticism he has ever directed at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But they were wrapped around a negotiating agenda reflecting the White House’s conclusion in the past few days that the Palestinians must be provided more tangible enticements to stop attacks on Israelis so the peace process can resume.

The president explicitly urged immediate action by Sharon to ease the longstanding blockade on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has staggered the Palestinian economy, and made the clearest demand ever issued by an American president for an end to “Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories.”

The insistence on stopping settlement construction is certain to run afoul of Sharon, who has long been a chief patron of Jewish settlers, and is but one of several American demands that could lead to friction with the Israeli government.

Yet, even as the Bush administration sets new, more difficult requirements of Israel, U.S. officials are not contemplating the kind of ambitious negotiating strategy adopted by the Clinton administration in pursuit of a final peace deal. Eighteen months of violence and dramatic political changes inside Israeli and Palestinian societies now preclude this.

In addition to calling on Israel to take specific steps to satisfy Palestinian political and economic concerns, Bush is also seeking to enlist U.S. allies in the Arab world, namely Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to help win Arafat’s agreement to crack down on militant groups and accept an American-brokered cease-fire. Powell spoke with the leaders of those countries Thursday and plans to visit them during his upcoming mission.

A senior U.S. official said administration thinking had evolved since the weekend and concluded that “these ideas that we were putting on the table were too narrow. It wasn’t enough. It simply didn’t provide an incentive for the Palestinians and the Arabs to start saying and doing things we wanted them to.”

For much of their tenure, Bush and his national security team have endorsed Sharon’s demand that a Palestinian crackdown on violence precede broader negotiations and accepted that Israel’s security needs trump Palestinian political aspirations, at least in the short term.

Powell’s new mission will be to chart a negotiating course that includes security measures and political steps satisfying both sides, what a senior administration official called “road maps and reciprocal obligations.” The goal is the restoration of calm after 18 months of bloodletting and a resumption of negotiations toward a final peace deal.

But although Bush said “the outlines of a just settlement are clear,” he left them vague. He said only that this would include “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.” He made no mention of the issues that have long bedeviled peace talks and thwarted President Clinton’s efforts.