In Mideast, Administration Belatedly Steps In From Sidelines

The Bush administration has apparently finally decided that continuing to sit on the sidelines in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would tarnish their public image, so over the past month they've taken some concrete steps toward trying to prevent further escalation of violence. Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs William Burns met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the weekend of June 21st; Bush himself met with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on June 26th; Colin Powell embarked on a Middle East tour. The intent of these actions seemed to be to shore up the truce negotiated earlier this month by CIA director George Tenet. Tenet's return to the region for security talks on June 9 was greeted by the Guardian UK with the headline "US creeps back into Middle East." Tenet met with the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian security organizations in an attempt to firm up what had been a fragile ceasefire. Meanwhile, on June 4 European officials had quietly moved into room in Beit Jala on the West Bank, to personally observe events in the region.

The European move predictably infuriated the Israelis and delighted the Palestinians, who have repeatedly called for international observers. U.S.-brokered talks between Palestinians and the Israeli government began on May 29 in Tel Aviv, but the June 1 suicide bombing of a popular discotheque brought the region to the brink of war. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was instrumental in obtaining Arafat's condemnation of the bombing, which may have prevented immediate Israeli military retaliation. Arafat told a press conference June 3 in Ramallah "We exerted and we will now exert our utmost efforts to stop the bloodshed of our people and the Israeli people and to do all that is needed to achieve an immediate and unconditional, real and effective ceasefire." Some observers described European diplomatic overtures in the region as "superseding" the U.S. hands-off policy, and have pointed to the greater visibility and success of some of their recent effort compared to those of the U.S.

The May 29 U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian talks began in the framework of the Mitchell report, endorsed by Secretary of State Powell at the end of May. The report called for an end both to terrorist acts and the building of Israeli settlements. Four terrorist bombs had exploded during the previous week, and shortly before talks were to begin the Israeli government confirmed a decision to build over 700 new homes on the West Bank.

The Bush administration's arms-length attitude toward the conflict may be exemplified most clearly by its failure to replace Dennis Ross, special envoy to the Middle East for the Clinton administration. In fact, when announcing in late May that William Burns, ambassador to Jordan, would become the U.S. point man for Middle East negotiations, Secretary of State Powell took pains to make clear that Burns would not be a special envoy.

The sustained violence in the region called into question the policy of detachment, however. David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told the Guardian UK last month, "The implications of sitting on your hands [are] pretty clear. The Middle East has a way of imposing itself. It requires special involvement."

Apparently Bush had hoped to be able to avoid involvement in Palestine while concentrating on policy concerning Iran and Iraq. During his confirmation hearings before the the senate, according to the New York Times, Secretary Powell "distanced himself" from the Clinton administration's efforts to promote an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and indicated that Syria would need to be included. He did, however, express concern about Iraq and Iran, particularly in connection with the possibility that they might obtain missile technology from North Korea. One of his early directives to his foreign policy staff was to review policies toward those countries. Observers assumed the goal was to find ways of being tougher on Iraq while becoming more lenient with Iran. Since the expulsion of UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1999 the sanctions have been disconnected from their original intention, which was to prevent development and deployment of "weapons of mass destruction." In the view of some, the sanctions in fact strengthen Saddam Hussein's dictatorial hold on Iraq, while destroying the country's economy. The new "smart sanctions" developed in conjunction with Britain are a variation on the current "oil-for-food" regimen, easing restraints on Iraqi imports but attempting to place the finances under UN control.

Ironically while making life easier for Saddam Hussein on the one hand, important members of the administration are on record supporting Hussein's ouster. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage previously signed an open letter calling for recognition of a leading Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Some members of the INC have been characterized as well-heeled lobbyists. The serious threat to Hussein comes from the Shiite Muslim guerillas in southern Iraq, supported by and based in Iran.

Muhamad Khatami's election in 1997 encouraged the hope in Iran and here that the diplomatic and commercial ties that were severed in 1979 might be restored. Former President Clinton lifted some import restrictions following Khatami's election, but the Bush administration signaled its strong anti-Iranian posture when the U.S. vetoed Iran's application to the World Trade Organization (WTO) last month. The chief justification for the hard line policy is the claim that Iran supports terrorism. The U.S. claims that Iran supports Hizbullah in Lebanon -- whose status as a terrorist organization is debated outside the U.S. and Israel -- as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Also, the FBI maintains that Iran was involved in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia, despite Saudi assertions that only their own nationals were involved.

Khatami initially distanced himself from radical elements in Iran who opposed the Middle East peace process. As the body count rose from the Palestinian intifada and Israel's response under newly elected prime minister Ariel Sharon, Khatami was forced by political necessity to lend support to the Palestinians. A Khatami supporter organized a conference in April in support of the intifada, and while Khatami himself only called for a referendum, attendees included officials of Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, and effectively revived the old image of Iran as the haven of Islamic extremism. This in turn decreased the likelihood of the U.S. dropping sanctions, which makes it even less likely that even moderate Iranians will enter into dialogue with the U.S.

So if only because they find issues more interdependent than they anticipated, Bush has allowed Secretary of State Colin Powell to become involved in the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and named former ambassador to Jordan, William Burns, special assistant on the Middle East.

On May 21 Powell endorsed the report of the Sharm el Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee that was led by former Senator George Mitchell. Among its key provisions the report calls for the Palestinian authority to "make a 100 percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators. This effort should include immediate steps to apprehend and incarcerate terrorists operating within the PA's jurisdiction," and for the government of Israel to "freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements." The Palestinians have endorsed the full report, and called for a summit to discuss how to implement it. Mr. Sharon has expressed support for the call for a cease-fire, but rejected the settlement freeze.

In his statement endorsing the report, Powell's emphasis seemed to accept Mr. Sharon's interpretation, as he said regarding the proposed settlement ban, "It is not linked in any way to his earlier call for an immediate cessation of hostilities. The settlement issue has to be dealt with at the end of the day, however, as part of the confidence building measures between the two sides." Observers suggested that this would be interpreted in the Arab world as evidence that the U.S. position was not evenhanded, and would help prevent the provisions of the report from being adopted by both sides, postponing an end to the current wave of violence. Peace Now, and other Israeli opposition groups have suggested that the settlement issue is being misrepresented by the Sharon administration, since many homes already built in West Bank settlements are vacant.

With the Palestinians doubting the seriousness of Sharon's intent, and Sharon refusing to compromise on the settlement question, the role of what the Economist calls "a creative middleman" becomes crucial. If the U.S. can allow both sides to blame it for the need to compromise, perhaps there can be at least an end to the current round of violence. The irony of Bush's policy reversal on the Middle East is that while the Clinton administration's involvement was aimed at securing a permanent peace, the Bush administration is expending significant political capital trying to prop up a ceasefire. One can only wonder how much lower the body count might have been had the administration stepped up to its responsibilities sooner.


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Barr, Cameron W. "Quiet new witness on West Bank" Christian Science Monitor 6 Jun. 2001

Borger, Julian and Brian Whitaker "US creeps back into Middle East" The Guardian 7 Jun. 2001

Goldberg, Suzanne "Disco atrocity pushes Israel to brink of war" The Guardian 3 Jun. 2001.

"Can sanctions be smarter?" The Economist (print edition). 24 May 2001.

"No exit?" The Economist (print edition). 24 May 2001.

Borger, Julian and Jane Martinson "US brokers new talks in Middle East" The Guardian 22 May 2001.

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