Better Late Than Never

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Off to Israel: Powell

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Switching Signals on Arafat
Bush was aching to get out of Washington for Easter. He hadn't visited his ranch in three months, the longest time he has been away from Texas since becoming President. So he went to Crawford, but as the deadly suicide bombings continued, he stayed out of sight, saying nothing for the first 48 hours. His silence amounted to a green light to Israel to counterattack--which in turn triggered more suicide bombings.

One reason for Bush's silence was that his aides were again fighting about what to say. The President said he didn't want to "showboat," appearing for the cameras but not offering much. Powell argued, sources tell TIME, that it was the moment to intervene and take a more evenhanded approach. But Rumsfeld and the hard-liners balked, arguing that terror was terror, no matter who was behind it. Other advisers wondered what Bush could conceivably do about the Holy Land's widening gyre. British Prime Minister Tony Blair weighed in, contending that making peace requires negotiating with the parties as you find them. And so, little by little, the Administration began to split the difference. On Saturday morning the U.S. voted with a near unanimous majority in the U.N. for a resolution calling on Israel to pull out of the Palestinian cities.

But that afternoon, when he finally made a statement, Bush seemed unaware of what his Administration had been up to. And he was working without a net: none of his top aides had followed him to Texas. "Everyone was on vacation," says a chagrined White House official, "and they pretty much stayed on vacation." Staffing the President was a junior press aide normally assigned to Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, and it showed. "I can understand why the Israeli government takes the actions they take," Bush said. "Their country is under attack." Given the U.N. vote that very morning, the message was incoherent. And the imagery and atmospherics were all wrong: wearing an open-collar shirt and rocking back and forth in his chair, Bush looked like his pre-Sept. 11 self, a little bit scared and a little bit scary. A top official said later, "It was a mistake."

By the time Bush returned to Washington on Sunday, the White House knew it had a problem. Senators from both parties were calling for Bush to get more involved. Presidential counselor Karen Hughes' morning communications meeting began with an aide who complained, "We're getting killed in the media!" Hughes and Rice joined forces and went to Bush to propose that he make a clarifying statement about the region sometime during the week. This time, to the moderates' surprise, the idea had the support of Cheney, who told Bush it was time to change gears and move toward more active intervention. "He was very realistic this week," says an official in the moderate camp. "Cheney was clearly influenced by his trip." Bush agreed on Monday night but told his aides about his decision Tuesday morning.

When Bush threw himself into the Middle East peace blender, his aides knew his neat and simple foreign-policy doctrine was going to be pureed. That meant Bush's right wing would feel betrayed. Early in the week the neoconservative opinion makers William Bennett and William Kristol told Bush to stick to his guns and show Arafat no quarter. Bennett and Kristol seemed to have an ally in Rumsfeld, who took an almost strident antiterrorist line in public all week, even as White House officials spread the word quietly that everyone actually agreed in private. Rumsfeld's remarks may have been just for show, designed to mollify those Bush was about to throw over the side. If so, it worked: Kristol's criticism of Bush in the Weekly Standard magazine on Friday was surprisingly mild.

The Dangers Ahead
Bush's opening statement wasn't exactly a beacon of clarity, since he had to carefully and judiciously slap just about everyone in the Middle East. But it may have been the beginning of a realistic policy. The main problem now is that no one knows what happens next. Arafat quickly accepted the President's proposal "without condition," as his spokesman said, but few believe he can control all the suicide bombers. Sharon pledged to withdraw from the Palestinian cities, but he seemed in a bigger hurry to mop up every potential terrorist and perhaps dismantle what was left of the civilian Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The death toll for the week rose to more than 100, with Israeli soldiers tightening their grip around Manger Square, where Palestinian gunmen and a huddle of civilians and priests were besieged in the Church of the Nativity complex. Israeli warplanes and artillery struck targets in southern Lebanon on Saturday after Israeli posts in Israel proper and the Golan Heights were shelled by Hizballah, raising familiar fears that a widening conflict could squelch yet another peace mission before it has a chance to take root. And Bush toughened his message to Sharon and called on Israel to pull back from the West Bank cities "without delay." On Saturday, in a telephone conversation with Bush, Sharon said he would expedite the campaign.

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