WASHINGTON – Yasser Arafat’s failing health gives President Bush a chance to promote a dialogue with the Palestinians that was largely abandoned two years ago because of a terror-filled uprising that Arafat did not quell.

The shape of that opportunity is still emerging, however, and Bush administration officials – while saying they were watching carefully – showed no sign of seizing it Thursday while reports of Arafat’s condition zigzagged.

Bush was asked at a news conference Thursday morning about statements in Europe, later retracted, that Arafat had died.

“My first reaction is, God bless his soul,” the president said. “My second reaction is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel.”

Palestinian officials in Paris, where Arafat is hospitalized, were variously quoted as saying that Arafat was in a coma, suffering organ failure or otherwise in grave condition.

Bush has insisted that the Palestinians change their leadership. In June 2002 he made the demand in a Rose Garden speech outlining a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. The president has said that Arafat did not meet his obligation to end Palestinian attacks on Israelis and has not proved himself a trustworthy negotiating partner.

Now Arafat’s health crisis is forcing the Palestinians finally to meet Bush’s terms.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others urged Bush this week to make Middle East peace a priority, but the president on Thursday repeated what he’s said before.

“I laid down … a very hopeful strategy in June of 2002. And my hope is that we’ll make good progress,” Bush told reporters.

Analysts outside the government called for more U.S. involvement.

“Arafat’s departure from the scene … creates an opportunity for the United States to engage in an effort to help promote a new Palestinian leadership and resolve the problem of having no negotiating partner among the Palestinians,” said Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

George Washington University professor Nathan Brown said the Palestinians now moving to take charge have in the past advocated a negotiated settlement with Israel.

“The question is, will they be able to deliver their constituency on that,” he said. “It’s also unclear whether the Israeli government has much interest.”

Beyond Bush’s reservations about negotiating with Arafat, Israeli views have hardened considerably over the last four years. Barry Rubin, an Israeli analyst who has written extensively about Arafat, said the suicide bombings and other acts of terror have created a Palestinian doctrine that, to Israelis, “is basically a pre-justification of genocide.”

“This problem will not go away when Arafat does,” Rubin wrote earlier this year. “How can someone with less legitimacy than Arafat escape this justification of violence?”

Khalil Jahshan, a Palestinian-American who is the Washington director for Pepperdine University, said that Palestinian attitudes have also hardened in the last four years. He said that Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands has moved both sides toward extreme solutions.

“What you have here, in the absence of a negotiated peace process, is such a letdown that the only alternatives left on both sides would require ethnic cleansing,” he said.

In April, Bush endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. In a break with previous U.S. policy, Bush also said that Palestinian refugees should not look to resettle in Israel, and that some Israeli settlements along the pre-1967 borders would inevitably be incorporated into Israel in a final settlement.

Those moves infuriated Palestinians and several Arab governments who said Bush was negotiating away key Palestinian goals. But they also pointed up the absence of a Palestinian negotiator.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan said Bush lost patience with Arafat after the Palestinian leader denied any knowledge of a shipload of Iranian arms intercepted by Israel late in 2001. The White House had proof that Arafat knew the arms were heading to Palestinian militants, Jordan said.

“It’s important to recognize we have to have a viable partner for peace, and Arafat was not one,” Jordan said. “We can resume the role of honest broker once we have someone in place with whom to conduct these discussions.”

Jordan said the administration should be careful not to handicap whoever emerges to replace Arafat, which could happen if the successor is viewed as a White House ally.

“This may be an opportunity, but I think we’ve got to tread very carefully so we aren’t seen as anointing a successor or suggesting who he or she should be,” he said.

Indyk warned that ignoring the opportunity created by Arafat’s departure could foster chaos in the Palestinian territories.

“The Middle East is going to dominate the president’s agenda, whether he likes it or not,” said Indyk, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration. “It offers him the most hope for a legacy of bringing peace, stability and democracy to the region, but it could be the opposite.”

(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-04-04 1951EST

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