Washington, May 21: President Bush, intervening to salvage his administration’s battered West Asia peace plan, yesterday called the new Palestinian Prime Minister for the first time, and administration officials said he was considering travelling to the region in the next few weeks for the first time as President.
Administration officials said that in his conversation with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Bush urged him to take “concrete steps” to disarm Hamas and other groups that have carried out attacks against Israelis. He later telephoned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, they said, asking him to ease the harsh conditions for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
The President’s unusually direct involvement in the West Asian situation reflected what administration officials said was a growing fear that without more assertive involvement from Washington, the chances to settle the Israel-Palestinian disputes could disappear into a vortex of more violence.
Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said Bush believes Abbas “genuinely wants to do everything in his power to achieve peace and to fight terror.”
But an administration official described the mood at the White House as one of “anxiety and desperation” following the latest cycle of five suicide attacks against Israelis since Saturday, Israeli crackdowns and the failure last week of secretary of state Colin Powell to bridge the differences between the two sides.
In a separate development, administration officials said that to rekindle the prospects for peace, Sharon was being pressed to consider doing something dramatic that would not directly affect Israeli security, such as dismantling a small number of Jewish settlements established in the last two years.
A couple of weeks ago, these officials said, two top White House aides — Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, and Elliott Abrams,director of West Asian affairs on the national security staff — took a helicopter trip across Israel with Sharon.
Administration officials said at the time that the trip was an attempt by Sharon to show them the precariousness of Israel’s security situation, as he had done with other visitors, including Bush before he was President.
In fact, the officials said, the helicopter trip was partly intended for them to get a bird’s eye view of Jewish settlements to see which ones would eventually be frozen or even dismantled as part of the peace negotiations. The peace plan calls implicitly for settlements to be dismantled as part of a final settlement, its drafters say.
A trip by Bush to West Asia was uncertain, administration officials said, and his aides were said to disagree over whether he should become more personally involved in the Israeli-Palestinian morass.
The President is due to leave at the end of this month for a summit meeting of the world’s leading industrial democracies in Evian, in the French Alps. US officials say that he could make a swing to Kuwait or Qatar to show support for American troops in Iraq, and meet Sharon and Abbas there or elsewhere. A visit to Israel itself was considered possible but unlikely.
But US officials concede that it would be extraordinary for Bush to get directly involved in the impasse between Israel and Palestinians over the longstanding issue of who makes the first gesture to defuse the violence and tensions. Some officials said there continued to be talk in the administration yesterday about selecting a special envoy to press Sharon and Abbas to make concessions to each other. But officials said a sense of futility pervaded even that discussion.
“How many special envoys have gone out there and had their reputations ruined'” asked an administration official. “Where are we going to find somebody willing to do it when the chances are so poor'”
Underlying the current crisis atmosphere was a growing realisation that the administration’s peace plan — the so-called “road map” calling for a phased series of reciprocal steps leading to a Palestinian state — had itself become a focus of Israeli-Palestinian antagonism rather than a path to peace talks.
The “road map” was a novel approach adopted by Bush, partly out of a determination to deal with foreign crises differently from President Bill Clinton.
It consisted of negotiating the steps in the ``road map'' plan over the last year, not with the Palestinians and the Israelis themselves, but with international partners - the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
The president also vowed not involve himself in the minutiae of the Middle East, disdaining the way his aides said Clinton had turned Camp David into a hotel for envoys while trying to hammer out an agreement, placing his own prestige on the line in a futile effort.
The administration's peace pla was worked out overmany months by the so-called Quartet, supported by three important Arab allies, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Both the Palestinian and Israeli sides raised objections to the draft of the plan, but according to administration officials they were asked not to oppose it outright. The strategy was to get Europeans and Arabs involved in the process so they could help persuade the Palestinians to respond positively.
When Israel objected, the pre sident was said to haveassured Sharon that he would force a change in Palestinian leadership, replacing Yasser Arafat with someone more willing to crack down on violence, and that Israel would not have to take irreversible actions until violence subsided.
With the end of the Iraq war, the administration published the plan. It has also been formally endorsed by the Palestinians and several Arab countries. Sharon has demurred.
Powell went to the region last week to try to get Israel and the Palestinians to take actions even in the absence of agreement on the road map. But according go administration officials, Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, now says he cannot take any actions until Israel endorses the road map.
Meanwhile, the plan is drawing criticism from conservatives inside and outside the administration. Christian groups and some Jewish groups say it is unfair to Israel because it requires too much for too little in return.
To the dismay of many in the administration, the plan, which was supposed to facilitate peace, has become an impediment, in the process isola ting Israel asopposing something favored by Europe, the United Nations, Russia, the American president and the Arab world.
Administration officials now say that they face a choice of abandoning the ``road map'' altogether and starting over, or somehow trying to persuade Israel to endorse it, perhaps by agreeing to some changes.