Saudi Visit Deepens Bush's Mideast Dilemma

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Bush greets Prince Abdullah at the President's ranch in Texas

That President Bush looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable on his own ranch after meeting Crown Prince Abdullah was hardly surprising, since the encounter did little to relieve the President's Mideast political headache. Following five hours of talks with the Saudi leader Thursday, all the President could report was that he was relieved that America's key Arab ally had no plans to use its oil supply to leverage U.S. policy. On the key point in the U.S.-Saudi relationship — the complaint that Washington has failed to restrain Israel's military campaign against the Palestinians — President Bush had little to offer.

He hesitantly reiterated his demand that Israel complete its withdrawal from West Bank towns, and vowed to work with the Saudis toward a shared vision of Israel at peace with its Arab neighbors. But the Saudi complaint is that Washington continues to send mixed messages to the region, and when it does make demands of Sharon, those are not backed up by anything that would make the Israeli leader take them seriously.

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The Prince used the meeting to impress on President Bush the extent to which support for Sharon jeopardizes U.S. standing throughout the Arab world, and by extension the position of the politically fragile moderate Arab regimes allied with Washington. Saudi pique at the White House was underlined by an interview given the same day by foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal to the Al Hayat newspaper, in which he pointedly refused to condemn Palestinian suicide bombers, insisting that his government would "work to eliminate [terrorism] from the world" but that "martyrdom operations" could not be condemned as long as the occupation persists.

More notable than what the President said following the meeting — the Prince made no statement — was the fact that no concrete undertakings were announced to address the current impasse. The fact that the Israeli-Palestinian situation dominated the discussion between President Bush and America's key Arab ally was, in itself, a reflection of the extent to which that conflict has eclipsed the Bush administration's wider agenda in the region. Plans for a military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein have lost momentum as Arab allies have insisted that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is their top priority. The Saudis have strongly warned against any attack on Iraq under present circumstances.

Although Arab pressure has forced the Bush administration, against its instincts, to get take a more active role in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, strong countervailing pressures in Washington appear to preclude any decisive intervention. Even as the President was meeting with Abdullah, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay was defying White House pleas to hold back on legislation expressing solidarity with Sharon's campaign and denouncing Yasser Arafat as a terrorist.

Capitol Hill's defiance is based in part on a growing rebellion among conservative Republicans against Colin Powell's mission to restore dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Earlier this week, DeLay told the America Israel Political Action Committee that Israel should hold on to lands it captured in 1967, whose return in exchange for peace remains the position of the Bush administration, as well as all moderate Arab leaders and at least half of Israeli voters. "I've walked Judea and Samaria [Biblical terms for the West Bank]," said DeLay. "I've stood on the Golan Heights. I didn't see an occupied territory. I saw Israel." Not even Sharon himself would be permitted such inflammatory rhetoric by his coalition partners, and the fact that the President's own political base is reinforcing the most hawkish trend in Israeli politics — partly in an effort to win Jewish support away from the Democrats in November's election — won't make Bush's Mideast dilemma any easier.

DeLay's grandstanding, however, may be less of a concern to Powell than the persistent reports of Bush administration hawks led by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld systematically second-guessing the Secretary of State and pushing for Sharon to be given a free hand to wage war on Palestinian militants and to sideline Arafat. Friday's Washington Post quoted State Department insiders complaining that the Defense Department had sabotaged Powell's mission by persuading the President to ease up on Sharon even as the Secretary of State was delivering the President's earlier, more forceful message. And Sharon, of course, is acutely aware of the seesawing battle inside the administration, which emboldens the Israeli leader to simply ignore the messages he doesn't like.

As a president prone to delegating, Bush now faces the unhappy reality that his advisers are pulling in sharply different directions. And his encounter with Abdullah, by all accounts a man as guileless and plain-spoken as himself, will have reminded him that in the Middle East, even "moral clarity" doesn't always cut through the policy fog.

With reporting by John Dickerson/Crawford, Texas