A week after being shelled by the pundits for its Mideast policies, the Bush administration fought back this weekend: Either Secretary of State Colin Powell or National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice appeared on every Sunday talk show.

Powell and Rice made their best case for the administration's latest peace initiative, but the pundits had tough questions that both leaders had to finesse: What was the goal of Powell's trip? When would the Israeli army withdraw, as requested by President Bush? Would Powell meet with Arafat?

"He's going to the region with nothing in hand," said Brit Hume on Fox News Sunday. "Clearly, they're going to be demanding a cease-fire, but what's not clear is what the consequences will be if they don't get it," said Mara Liasson of NPR, also on Fox. Cokie Roberts of NPR may have summed it up best on This Week: "Powell has a really tough nut. This is not going to be easy."

Tim Russert on Meet the Press wondered if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's failure to begin withdrawing immediately was "insubordination." Bob Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times was skeptical that the administration was serious about having the Israelis withdraw. George Stephanopolous, on This Week, ventured that Sharon had until Friday, when Powell would be in Jerusalem, to begin a withdrawal.

Secretary Powell said on Meet the Press that he would see Palestinian Leader Arafat "if circumstances permit."

"The administration is laying the groundwork for cutting him [Arafat] loose," according to Cokie Roberts.

While some pundits were pleased with the administration's latest moves in the Mideast — "The hard-liners of the administration have failed," crowed Juan Williams of NPR on Fox — others were bitterly critical.

Bill Kristol, of The Weekly Standard, said flatly on Fox, "The Bush administration has retreated in the war on terror." He went on to disparage Powell's argument for why Arafat should speak out against suicide bombers: "God forbid he actually say it's wrong to kill women and children sitting down to a Seder."

Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, saying on Capital Gang, "[Bush] has been about as resolute as silly putty on the Middle East," believes the crisis could damage the president politically. David Brooks of The Weekly Standard, however, appearing on The News Hour, noted that "The Democratic party has had no position. I think it's going to hurt them."

Mailbag

Last week's column set a Punditwatch record for responses as readers reacted to pundit criticism of the Bush administration's Mideast policy:

Patricia Deskins writes:

I don't think it takes a pundit to see that the suicide bombings go on no matter what the U.S. is doing or what Arafat is saying. I admire the Pope for at least speaking out. Perhaps all of the religious leaders across the world should join together and make these kinds of strong statements so that the Muslims will understand that no religion except theirs says it's okay to murder people. If all of these religious leaders did this, it might put a lot of pressure on the Muslims to make a similar statement condemning suicide bombings.

Eileen Orr of Greenville, S.C., writes:

While I believe George Bush is allowed only to say what he's taught to say, who beatified the pundits as policy makers or critics? If they're so smart, they should be part of government.

Peter Storment writes:

It is time for the administration to hold its nose and wade into the quagmire with the idea of imposing a settlement that will be hated by both sides, but fair. As long as we represent Israel's side of the conflict only, we will not be considered a fair broker, and the violence will only escalate with dire consequences for us.

Wilfred Tam writes:

Arafat, in my opinion, is an old man who doesn't care about his own people, only about his own legacy.

Sandy Hensley of Versailles, Ind., writes:

Does the media realize how long there has been turmoil in these two countries? Blaming it on Bush or anyone else is pure stupid.

Bob Finlay writes:

Get off of Bush's back!! With friends like those in this summary he does not need any enemies. Not one of them had any constructive ideas — just a chance to stab Bush in the back and you gave them coverage!

Michelle Frazier writes:

So Mark Shields is now the expert? I would say that Clinton's Mideast policy was a sham even if he could recite all of the different neighborhoods in Jerusalem. This shows what all of us out here living in reality know —  that these "knowledgeable pundits" who love to hear themselves talk on Sunday morning know very little.

Sandra Lee of Greeneville, Tenn., writes:

Isn't it time for the Palestinian majority to speak up for peace and come up with a leader who wants peace to go to the peace table? Shouldn't the Palestinians put Arafat out to pasture?

Doris Snyder writes:

If I want fair and balanced, I don't need anybody but the guys and gals on the Fox News Channel. After listening to Juan Williams on the Sunday panel, I had the reasons why I no longer listen to NPR reinforced.

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