A renewed US focus on Mideast conflict

Greater involvement seems likely, as administration seeks to build antiterrorism coalition with moderate Arab states.

The Bush administration may have its plate full, building and sustaining an international coalition against terrorism, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is demanding - and lately receiving - a corner of the plate.

After keeping the conflict off its radar screen, the administration is showing a willingness to assume a higher profile in the conflict. President Bush's announcement this week offering conditional support for a Palestinian state was not so important for what it said - it didn't break ground in US policy - as for when it was said.

The statement Tuesday came at the outset of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tour this week to several Arab countries that will be key to success for any military action the US undertakes in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The move reflects the administration's view that the US must act to address the public's anti-US bias in moderate Arab countries, some observers believe.

But the statement also reflects how Sept. 11 has modified the administration's approach to the Middle East. "Policy-forcing events are often necessary before a conflict is ripe for intervention, and Sept. 11 is a policy-forcing event," says Raymond Tanter, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who has ties to the administration.

The best clues as to how far the US will go in the Middle East will come from the region itself - from signs that levels of violence are being brought under control, that the chasm between the Israelis and Palestinians is being bridged, and that moderate Arab leaders continue to tell the US that its active role in addressing the conflict is indispensable.

What leaves some experts pessimistic that the stepped-up involvement can do any good now is their view that while the US shift may reflect US needs, it does not follow improvements on the ground.

"The conditions haven't changed. What changed is Sept. 11," says Yossi Shain, a professor of government and a Middle East expert at Georgetown University. "But with the Palestinian violence and Israeli reprisals continuing, the conditions are no better than before, when the US said conditions weren't right" for deeper US involvement.

The renewed US presence in the Middle East equation reflects the "mistaken" view of Secretary of State Colin Powell that last month's terrorist attacks have some connection to the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says. "It isn't linked."

State Department officials say there was nothing surprising in Mr. Bush's statement that "the idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected." State Department spokesman Richard Boucher noted this week that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself said recently that Israel wants to give the Palestinians "the possibility of establishing a state."

But Mr. Boucher also appeared to take pleasure in the fact that the president's comment suggests a higher degree of US involvement in the conflict, something for which Secretary Powell has pushed. "We all recognize the president leads, the president decides what's US policy," he said.

The administration is walking a fine line, experts say, as it seeks to appear responsive to moderate Arab countries, without suggesting it will act differently toward Israel in order to build the antiterrorism coalition, or that it accepts the idea that the conflict and terrorism are linked.

"In 1995-96, when the peace process was going well, the radical fundamentalists used terrorism" to try to derail it, "and in 2000-01, when it's not going well, there is rising terrorism, so it doesn't stand to analysis to say the reason for terrorism is the conflict," says Bruce Jentleson, director of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy and Middle East expert at Duke University.

But he says the events of Sept. 11 nevertheless awoke the administration to the fact that it cannot ignore the conflict. Even if conditions on the ground don't yet permit optimism about a speedy return to negotiations, he says the US must use its influence in two basic ways: to impress upon Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he "generally needs to stop the violence," and to stop the Sharon government from "using the [international] situation to harden its position."

That doesn't exactly constitute a US peace plan - which Mr. Tanter says the situation is not yet "ripe" for anyway - but it does imply greater involvement.

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