President Bush is declaring his hope for a Palestinian state loud and clear, and no wonder -- it's almost the price of entry to the alliance with Europe that he urgently wants to revive.
Some in the American Jewish community at first were uneasy about Bush's push for the Palestinians, but Bush's actions show that his commitment to Israel remains as solid as ever.
Just as Bush repeatedly has touted the benefits of a future Palestinian state at each stop along this week's European tour, his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is determined to keep the discussion limited to the here and now when an international conference on the Palestinians convenes March 1 in London.
Rice will not allow the conference to consider the geographic contours of a Palestinian state, and instead will focus on how the United States and Europe can help the Palestinians reform a society corrupted by years of venal terrorist rule under the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
"This will definitely have a more practical and pragmatic orientation," an administration official said.
That's fine with the Europeans, who are happy to see progress on a topic they once felt Bush neglected -- even if, for now, the progress is rhetorical.
"This is probably good music to introduce the London conference," a European diplomat said of Bush's repeated reference to his hope that he will see a democratic Palestine.
Bush's push for Palestinian empowerment at first alarmed some Jewish organizational leaders, who wanted to see if newly elected P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas would carry out Palestinian promises to quash terrorism.
Now that Abbas apparently is beginning to make good on his pledge -- deploying troops throughout the Gaza Strip to stop attacks, and sacking those responsible for breaches -- Jewish communal leaders are more on board.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations this week formally welcomed Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, and congressional insiders say the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had a role in making a U.S. House of Representatives resolution praising Abbas even more pro-Palestinian then the original draft.
One factor that temporarily tempered Jewish enthusiasm was Bush's determination to rebuild a transatlantic alliance frayed by the Iraq war.
Bush wants the Europeans on board in his plans for democratizing Iraq, corralling Iran's nuclear ambitions and expanding global trade. But Jewish officials have felt burned in recent years by the Europeans' perceived pro-Palestinian tilt and their failure to contain resurgent anti-Semitism.
Don't get too exercised, cautioned David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"We should be careful every time we hear the word 'Europe' not to get allergic," he said. "Bush is trying to channel the Europeans to focus more on consensus issues."
That may be so, but the consensus appears to be shifting. Bush's calls for Palestinian statehood have never been so frequent or emphatic.
"I'm also looking forward to working with our European partners on the Middle Eastern peace process," Bush said Tuesday after meeting with top European Commission officials.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair "is hosting a very important meeting in London, and that is a meeting at which President Abbas will hear that the United States and the E.U. is desirous of helping this good man set up a democracy in the Palestinian territories, so that Israel will have a democratic partner in peace," Bush continued. "I laid out a vision, the first U.S. president to do so, which said that our vision is two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. That is the goal. And I look forward to working concretely with our European friends and allies to achieve that goal."
The day before, at another Brussels speech, Bush was applauded when he called for a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and a freeze on Israeli settlement building.
More substantively, Rice last week broke with years of U.S. policy and told Congress that $350 million in aid Bush has requested for the Palestinians -- including $200 million to be delivered as soon as possible -- will go directly to 34 P.A.-run projects, and not through nongovernmental organizations, a practice that had helped to lessen corruption.
The administration believes "that's the quickest way to do it," Rice said. "This is not the Palestinian Finance Ministry of four or five years ago, where I think we would not have wanted to see a dime go in."
That stunned members of the House Appropriations Committee, where Rice was testifying. Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R-Mich.) asked Rice to repeat her reply because he couldn't believe it.
"You can understand why we're a little tense about that," he told Rice.
One reassurance for anyone skeptical of the administration's plans: The Israeli government is at ease with the aid plans and is happy to sit out the London conference.
But while Israel welcomes European assistance with economic and political reforms in Palestinian areas, it looks askance at any European attempt to help with security. Israeli officials prefer to channel all security measures through the Americans, fearing that multiple security initiatives run by different partners will create chaos.
The Europeans have not entirely abandoned the idea, however. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, secretary-general of NATO, said sending troops to keep the peace might yet be considered.
"If there would be a peace agreement, if there would be a need for parties to see a NATO role, I think we would have a discussion around the NATO table," he said Tuesday on CNN.
While the Europeans are happy to limit discussions for now to such issues as infrastructure and democratic institutions, that won't always be the case.
The London conference "will show the Palestinians that the world is getting things done, and now it's their turn [to implement reforms]," the European diplomat said. "But you can't pretend that what is achieved in London will last 25 years. We need to go on from there."
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