George W. Bush had his first unpleasant brush with Yasir Arafat in 1998. The then Texas governor toured Israel at the invitation of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a pro-Israel U.S. group, and by all accounts it was an eye-opening trip. A teary Bush read Scripture on the Mountain of Beatitudes, where Christ gave his Sermon on the Mount. He also hit it off with Ariel Sharon; the burly general, then foreign minister, took Bush and a group of other American governors around the country, talking about the history of the land and giving them the security perspective of a warrior. When Bush learned that if Israel were forced to revert to its pre-1967 boundaries, parts of it would be just eight miles wide, he quipped, "In Texas there are some driveways longer than that." The group watched Israeli jets being scrambled at an Air Force base--impressing Bush, who flew jets in the National Guard. "He knows it, he feels it, he understands it," says a Jewish friend and fellow Texas Republican, Fred Zeidman, who adds that when Bush invited him to his Austin mansion shortly afterward, the governor greeted him at the door, saying, "This trip had a greater impact on me than anything I've felt in my life."
For months the governors' group had also sought to meet with Arafat or another Palestinian representative on that trip, and was rebuffed repeatedly. (Palestinian officials cited scheduling conflicts.) But when Bush arrived at his first stop, reporters asked the governor--who was seen as a future presidential candidate--to respond to allegations that he hadn't wanted to meet with Arafat. Bush was angry, sources say. The incident may have left a lasting impression--one that was reinforced four years later, in February, when Arafat claimed he knew nothing about an arms shipment from Iran that the Israelis had intercepted. If there is one thing George W. Bush doesn't like, it's a liar.
Those deeply held beliefs, and his emotional first encounter with Israel, may have had something to do with the harsh line against Arafat that the Bush administration took last week. Bush, who was spending Easter weekend at his ranch in Crawford, held a teleconference with his national-security team back in Washington shortly after Israel smashed into Arafat's Ramallah headquarters. Secretary of State Colin Powell was sent out to deliver a statement that the root cause was "terrorism in its rawest form." But Powell, clearly somewhat uncomfortable, also said the Americans had pressed Sharon not to kill Arafat. "Chairman Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people, and his leadership is now even more central to trying to find a way out," he said. Bush officials worry that a sniper's stray bullet killing Arafat could touch off a wider war. "Dead, he's a martyr," says one Bush loyalist.
The Bush administration now finds itself in something of a quandary on the Mideast. It can't seem to decide, finally, whether Arafat is a terrorist or a peace partner, and whether peace or even a ceasefire is worth trying. Bush's own sympathies seem clear. He is a president who believes in personal character and in simple, basic truths. Especially since September 11, when the most horrific attack on U.S. soil in the nation's history gave rise to the "Bush Doctrine." Its stark creed: people are either with Bush in the war on terror or they are against him. And increasingly it seems that Bush has looked at Yasir Arafat through this crystal-clear lens and decided that he doesn't like what he sees.
Sources say that Bush is for the most part in accord with his old tour guide, Sharon, who called the Palestinian leader "the enemy" last week. Bush may have also decided that no peace can be achieved under Arafat, whom he has never invited to the White House and never met. Privately Bush has told friends that he sees Arafat as a terrorist. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have argued, in internal debates, to have Arafat declared unacceptable as head of the Palestinian Authority, but Powell and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice have opposed the move. For once, Bush may be in agreement with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who all but gave up on Arafat as his term ran out. Even a top Mideast negotiator says peace may have to await a post-Arafat era.
But Bush's seductively simple principle can't reconcile some messy contradictions. The Bushies may need Arafat more than ever, especially as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict gets increasingly mixed up in the war on terror. That's what Cheney found out in recent weeks, when he headed off to the region with hopes of winning Arab support for plans to target Iraq. Cheney heard an earful from Arab leaders who fear that, faced with the "street" rage of the intifada, they could not politically support an attack on Saddam Hussein. In one of a series of diplomatic embarrassments for the administration at last week's Arab summit in Beirut, the Saudis led summiteers in adopting a resolution calling on Washington not to attack Iraq; to further blunt the Bushies' plans, Arab leaders also coerced the Iraqis into abjuring their long-held belief that Kuwait is their province.
As a result, the veep came back calling for a deeper U.S. role in the region. "The fact of the matter is, there isn't anybody but us" who can mediate, he said. By Saturday, Bush himself took a slightly more diplomatic tack, expressing sympathy with the Palestinians and asking Israel not to close off a "path to peace" while it defends itself. The problem is that, for now, an administration that has only sporadically paid attention to the Mideast seems to lack a strategy. Indeed, one reason Bush's personal views of Arafat and the Mideast are so telling is that they fill a policy vacuum. The administration has put forward no new plan for extricating the Israelis and Palestinians from the endless spiral of violence--in part because it has seemed so hopeless, in part because there is no strong Mideast strategist at senior levels. "The bottom line here," says a longtime adviser to the president, has little to do with what Powell or Rice think. The decisive factor, he says, is Bush's "very interesting sense of justice and fairness." Richard Perle, a pro-Israel hawk who runs the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, says Bush bears none of the diplomatic baggage from the 1993 Oslo peace agreement, which was based on the idea that Arafat ultimately wanted to make peace with Israel. "He didn't go through the establishment education that prevents people from seeing the simple truths," Perle says. "Bush hasn't been subjected to the facade of diplomacy that conceals a fundamental fact, which is that these guys intend to destroy the Israeli state."
But this black-and-white view may put the president somewhat at odds, for the moment, with Cheney and others. Bush has hitched himself to a leader, Sharon, who also seems to have no strategy except for using ever-harsher tactics. For Washington, this blatantly pro-Israel stance risks Bush's post-September 11 strategy of winning over the Islamic world, or at least preventing Osama bin Laden from gaining adherents to his call for a jihad against the West. In more evidence that the Bushies are of two minds about how to deal with the issue, the administration on Saturday voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities. Sandy Berger, Clinton's national-security adviser, is the first to admit that if the Bushies are in, they have a far tougher problem than he did. "The Israelis will not seriously talk about a political future [for the Palestinians] while they're under fire, unless Arafat makes a commitment to really tear up the infrastructure of violence. But on the other side Arafat has got a tough job doing that if he has no political path forward" to promise his people, says Berger. "We have to fill that gap. The way to do it now is both deepen and broaden our engagement."
But that, of course, will mean negotiating with Yasir Arafat. Some Mideast hands like Berger say this is precisely the moment to seize on the Saudi peace initiative, which represents the first time the Arab world has embraced a solution that would accept Israel as a permanent part of the region. "I think now we have to go back to the Arabs and say, 'We're prepared to make a major effort to build on the Saudi initiative. But you've got to deliver the Palestinians'," says Berger. But so far, the Bushies have pinned their hopes on the mission of envoy Anthony Zinni to achieve a ceasefire--leaving the larger questions for another time. It's "a moment of decision," says a senior State Department official. "We've worked this to the point where further negotiations... is just further time for violent acts and retaliation." Arafat, fielding calls from world leaders with a machine pistol by his side, seems to have cast his lot with his own terror brigades. That has pushed Bush more deeply into Sharon's camp. But in the end, to staunch the Arab-Israeli bloodletting, this administration, like its predecessors, may not have the liberty to choose between Arafat the terrorist and Arafat the statesman. He is simply all they have.