The Los Angeles Times, USA Today,and the Washington Post all lead with President Bush essentially endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral plan to pull out of Gaza and keep some major settlements in the West Bank. Bush also rejected the Palestinians’ “right of return.” The New York Times, which previewed Bush’s announcement in yesterday’s paper, leads with the 9/11 staff report that portrays the CIA and its director, George Tenet, as having had, as one Republican panel member summarized it, “a system that is broken, that doesn’t function.” The reports state that the CIA didn’t even recognize the al-Qaida network as such until 1999. Tenet called the conclusions “flat wrong.” USAT fronts Tenet’s comment that it will take “another five years” before the intelligence services are fully equipped to deal with jihadist threats.
While Bush didn’t accede to Sharon’s request that he name specific settlements that can remain, Bush’s announcement was a reversal for the U.S., which for the past 20 years had formally declared settlements to be “an obstacle to peace.” (Clinton had supported a peace plan that entailed keeping some settlements, but only as part of a final, negotiated deal.)
The NYT’s James Bennet says Sharon got his wish list filled “by promising to trade something Israelis overwhelmingly do not want any more: the Gaza settlements and a handful of settlements in the West Bank. And he got them without having to negotiate with the Palestinians.”Bennet continues, “Palestinian officials knew that Israel strongly opposed yielding the whole West Bank or accepting the ‘right of return,’ and they had explored compromises in the past. But they relied on both demands as formidable negotiating levers. Mr. Bush has now moved to pluck both from their hands.”
Asked whether settlements represent an impediment to Mideast peace, Bush said, “The problem is, is that there’s terrorists who will kill people in order to stop the process.”
Palestinians and Arabs in general were irate. “The message tonight to the Palestinian public is, ‘Don’t count on negotiations to help you achieve your vital interests,’ ” one moderate Palestinian analyst told the Post. “I don’t recall ever seeing an American position being so one-sided.”
In a counterpoint to all the complaints, the LAT’s quotes a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, taking the long view. “If Sharon is helped to make a full withdrawal from Gaza, he will have done something which no previous Israeli prime minister has done and in the process he will have set precedents—for the full evacuation of Israeli settlements and for full withdrawal—and that is actually far more important than what the president said today.”
The Post emphasizes and other note that Bush’s announcement could play well with Jewish voters. Perhaps, the WP says, that explains Sen. Kerry’s response to the proposal. “I think that [it] could be a positive step,” said Kerry. “What’s important obviously is the security of the state of Israel.”
Everybody notes that one Italian hostage was executed. Al Jazeera says it received film of the murder. Some of the papers mention that a mortar attack killed four Iraqis in the northern town of Mosul. And according to early morning reports, three Iraqis were killed by another explosion north of Baghdad. Two more Japanese were reported to have been kidnapped. Italy sent a transport plane to evacuate citizens. Russia also said it would evacuate its citizens as well as those from former Soviet republics.
The NYT continues to suggest that radical cleric Muqtada Sadr is signaling that he wants to settle. The Times emphasizes that an Iranian delegation arrived in Baghdad to help mediate. The Post continues to say that Sadr is giving mixed signals.
The WP says that as U.S. troops made their way to Najaf, “nearly every convoy was fired on.”
The Post, alone, fronts the Pentagon’s decision, as expected, to hold 20,000 troops in Iraq past their fly-home dates. The soldiers were scheduled to complete their yearlong rotations this month and instead will remain at least another three months.
Fighting continued in Fallujah. The Marines have mostly suspended offensive operations while guerrillas haven’t. The Post’s Pamela Constable describes the ambush of a Marine convoy in Fallujah: “There were 50 to 100” attackers, said the officer who led a rescue unit. “I saw much more coordination than anything I seen before. They’ve been preparing for this the whole time.” At least five Iraqis were killed, as U.S. planes and helicopters took part in the fighting.
The NYT mentions that there was an intense daylong firefight a few miles from Fallujah in the town of Karma. The Marines said they killed 100 insurgents. USAT says the fighting was so heavy that some wounded Marines were “sent to rejoin the fight.” Some of the insurgents were wearing Iraqi police flak jackets.
The LAT and Post front a U.N. special envoy’s presentation of his ideas for transferring at least symbolic sovereignty to Iraqis by June 30. The envoy said the widely distrusted U.S.-backed Governing Council should “cease to exist” and should be replaced temporarily by technocrats appointed jointly by the U.N. and U.S. Elections are slated for January 2005, though the envoy warned that’s not realistic unless security improves.
A piece stuffed inside the Post says that the EPA, after consulting with the rat-poison industry, has shelved draft regulations designed to make it harder for children to ingest the poisons.
Let freedom ring true, or giving Al Siegal the finger … Reporting on the White House endorsement of Sharon’s plan, the NYT’s Elisabeth Bumiller quotes a “senior administration official who asked not to be identified because he wanted to speak more freely.” Referring to Palestinians’ anger, the gutsy SAO said, “I don’t think that reaction is going to stop progress because there are real benefits here for Palestinians, and they’re going to see those benefits here clearly.”