Mideast war at the White House: Karl Rove mediated

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

WASHINGTON President George Bush has resolved a heated dispute within his administration over U.S. strategy to establish a Palestinian state.

Administration officials and senior sources in Congress said Bush resolved several issues that concerned U.S. policy to establish an interim Palestinian state by the end of 2003.

Most of the issues, the officials and congressional sources said, were submitted to Bush's chief political strategist Karl Rove. They said Rove, who engineered the Republican victory in Congress in November 2002, has been granted major input in U.S. foreign policy as part of an effort to prepare Bush's reelection campaign in 2004. Rove accompanied the president during the Sharm e-Sheik and Aqaba summits, Middle East Newsline reported.

The officials said the decisions concerned policy issues as well as appointments to oversee the so-called roadmap. The roadmap, drafted by Washington, the European Union, United Nations and Russia, also envisions a Palestinian state with permanent borders in 2005.

"The struggle was basically over whether the National Security Council or the State Department would be responsible for the roadmap issue," an official said. "State won and it will largely determine the tactics and pace of the process."

"There were some heated discussions within the top echelon of the administration over the principles that would guide the roadmap," an official said. "The debates were both between and within agencies and the president resolved them on the eve of his arrival in Sharm [e-Sheik] to meet with Arab leaders."

The administration officials and congressional sources said a key debate was whether to link the establishment of an interim Palestinian state to the elimination of Palestinian insurgency groups by the Palestinian Authority as well as an Arab commitment to stop funding such groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They said officials in the Defense Department and National Security Council said such a condition was vital to ensure that a Palestinian state would not endanger U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.

As late as Saturday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz asserted that Bush had maintained the linkage between a Palestinian state and an end to insurgency groups. Wolfowitz said the issue was a key element in Bush's pledge in June 2002 for the establishment of a democratic and peaceful Palestine.

"As President Bush said last June, the United States supports the establishment of a Palestinian state if Palestinians, in turn, embrace democracy, confront corruption and reject terror," Wolfowitz, addressing a security conference in Singapore, said. "The roadmap lays the foundation for this state. It also lays down markers for what Palestinians and Israelis must accomplish."

But officials said Bush decided not to impose conditions for the establishment of an interim state. They said that instead Bush expressed his determination to achieve a Palestinian ceasefire as well as an Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Another issue that at one point divided the administration was whether Bush should press Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to stop all Saudi funding to Hamas. Several officials had argued that a halt in Saudi funding to Hamas would help the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who has pledged to end Palestinian attacks against Israel.

The State Department rejected the proposal, officials said. They said Assistant Secretary of State William Burns argued that Riyad has taken significant steps to stop the funding of groups deemed as terrorists and has allowed a U.S. interagency team to monitor the investigation of the May 12 suicide strikes in Riyad.

Burns and other officials warned that raising the Hamas issue with Abdullah could endanger other U.S.-Saudi cooperation against Al Qaida. In the end, Bush decided not to press the Hamas issue with Abdullah during their meeting on Tuesday, officials said.

"The Saudis told the president that they are making renewed efforts on the fight against terrorism, including particularly on the financing of terrorism," U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told a briefing in Sharm e-Sheik on Tuesday.

The administration also argued over the content of the communiques for the summits in Sharm e-Sheik and Aqaba. Officials said Pentagon and National Security Council aides wanted the communiques to include the U.S. commitment to the continuation of a Jewish state. They said the proponents, including several leading House and Senate members, argued that this would reassure Israel that Washington would reject a Palestinian demand for the return of millions of refugees and their descendants to their homes in Israel.

Bush, however, decided in favor of a recommendation by Secretary of State Colin Powell not to include any mention of a Jewish state in the summit communiques. Instead, Powell told a news conference in Sharm that the United States envisions Israel as a Jewish state alongside a "contiguous" Palestinian state.

"Israel, to live side by side in peace with Palestine, must be always seen as a Jewish state," Powell said. "That has implications, as we go forward, as to how we will negotiate some of the difficult issues that remain in front of us."

Officials said the most heated dispute concerned the appointment of a presidential envoy to monitor the roadmap. Ms. Rice urged the president to appoint outgoing U.S. ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, as the U.S. monitor of Israeli and Palestinian commitments to the roadmap. Blackwill is regarded as a personal friend of Bush.

But Powell was said to have opposed Blackwill's appointment. Blackwill often clashed with Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca in the ambassador's support for Indian-U.S. defense relations and the inclusion of Israel in a strategic alliance with Washington and New Dehli.

Finally, Bush agreed not to appoint Blackwill and asked Powell for his recommendation. Officials said Powell recommended Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf, responsible for State Department policy on nonproliferation. Wolf served in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs under the administration of President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and 1988.

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