WASHINGTON – The bloody Israeli-Palestinian stalemate has plunged President Bush into a diplomatic predicament. With no easy options, he has looked unusually indecisive and vulnerable to criticism that his actions — and inaction — have handicapped peacemaking efforts.
U.S. support for Israel is fanning anti-American sentiment across the Islamic world, causing demonstrations in several countries and clashes between security forces and thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
Moderate nations that Bush will need in any wider war on terrorism, such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, are questioning his motives, evidence that the crisis has complicated U.S. plans to widen the war on terrorism and move against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Even European allies seem increasingly unhappy with how the Bush administration has handled the crisis. The European Union suggested Wednesday that the United States should step aside and allow a new international alliance to mediate a cease-fire.
Americans who strongly support Bush's anti-terror efforts are less sure about his moves in the Middle East.
In a CBS News poll, respondents were evenly split about whether Bush has enough experience to negotiate a settlement. Six in 10 Americans approve his handling of the Middle East crisis — a strong show of support but significantly less than his approval ratings for the war on terrorism.
Bush hopes to receive a needed boost this weekend when British Prime Minister Tony Blair visits the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Blair has been among Bush's strongest allies in the war on terrorism and is expected to back the president's efforts in the Middle East.
Before the meeting, Bush aides said the president inherited a complex situation in the Middle East and is doing everything he can to ease the crisis. They also hinted that a new initiative may be in the offing.
``The situation, as I think the American people recognize and understand, is deeply, deeply complicated,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
U.S. officials said Bush is considering a wide range of options, including sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to join forces with envoy Anthony Zinni. Fleischer would not comment on specifics, but said, ``The president will always look for constructive ways to accomplish bringing peace to the Middle East.''
Bush might have himself to blame for complicating the situation.
He alarmed Muslim nations and many allies by declaring that Iran, Iraq and North Korea were an ``axis of evil'' that needed to be dealt with. Since his State of the Union address, goodwill built up over the years with Arab leaders has begun drying up.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key U.S. ally in the region, urged Bush to take ``immediate action'' to end Israel's military campaign. His country announced Wednesday it would limit diplomatic contacts with Israel.
Bush painted himself into a diplomatic corner when he declared shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks that a country that harbors terrorists would be dealt with as terrorists. As suicide bombers savaged Israel, Bush was forced to admit that his one-size-fits-all doctrine didn't fit Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
It's not the first time Bush's rhetoric has shifted.
He all but endorsed Israel's attacks in Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, on Saturday, even as the United States joined other U.N. Security Council members in calling on Israel to withdraw its troops.
Just two weeks ago, the Bush administration said Israel must withdraw all its troops and tanks from Ramallah and other Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza. Bush himself said then Israel's actions were ``not helpful.''
Bush advisers say his position toward Israel softened as suicide bombers increased the nation's death toll. In addition, Israel released seized documents it said directly linked Arafat's office with terror attacks.
That and other developments leave Bush with precious few options, including:
—Give Israel his blessing to evict Arafat and dismantle the Palestinian Authority.
—Announce steps that both sides need to take to stop the violence or even suggest a settlement plan.
—Insist that political issues, such as carving up land, be dealt with at the same time as negotiating a truce and other security issues. For the first time, Fleischer said Wednesday that Bush was willing to embrace both goals at once.
—Wait patiently for both sides to realize that violence isn't the answer and embrace the U.S. call for a truce followed by political talks.
The first option is risky, the second unlikely to succeed, U.S. officials said. The third is only a slight variation of Bush's long-held view that only Israel and Palestinians can create a true peace.
``Bush is not being indecisive or inconsistent,'' said Jay Farrar, a military analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ``Wrong or not, he has held to the same line: Until Palestinians renounce terrorism, the U.S. is going to stand on the sidelines and hope.''