No more 'wait and see' on Mideast peace

Bush seeks to mend ties with Arab nations, but also keep pressure on Arafat.

Two elements are propelling the Bush administration to reassert American influence in the Middle East, taking on a role that more closely resembles the one played during President Clinton's years.

First, America has heard loud and clear since Sept. 11 that its image in the Middle East has been tarnished. While President Bush's team practiced a low-profile approach during the first part of the year, problems between Israelis and Palestinians only intensified. In turn, Arab and Muslim countries grew increasingly unhappy with the US, which they see as the only country that can effectively mediate the situation.

At the same time, these nations have become convinced that the time is ripe for action. They see Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's support of the US fight against terrorism as one of several signs that the doors are opening wider for American diplomacy.

These factors are figuring into two events today that signal the administration's new tack. At the White House, Mr. Bush will host the ambassadors from as many as 50 Muslim countries for prayer, before partaking in the Iftar, a traditional meal commemorating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

At the University of Kentucky in Louisville, meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell will deliver a major foreign-policy speech. He may announce the dispatch of envoys to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, plus stops in other Arab countries where leaders are working on separate proposals for putting peace talks back on track.

Before, "the Bush policy was 'Let's take a breather from the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," says Yossi Shain, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University here. But "Sept. 11 changed everything about the American role in the region. The administration realizes it has to respond more aggressively."

Richard Murphy, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who was an assistant secretary of state under President Reagan, says Mr. Powell's speech is part of the administration's effort to "put some flesh back on the bones" of Middle East policy. Mr. Murphy says he expects to see John Burns, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, sent to the region under much the same conditions he was: by an administration "earnest" in wanting to explore what can be done, "but with reserve" as to conditions for quick results.

The United States was looking for the right moment to actively reenter the peace process even before Sept. 11, administration officials insist. Powell was set to address US policy in the region in a speech at the UN that was put off by the September attacks.

Still, those events added a new urgency to US action. "Suddenly, there was a realization that the price of failure [to achieve peace] would be paid not only in the region, but in the United States itself," says Judy Barselou, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace here.

Articulating a vision of what an accord might look like and laying down the kinds of compromises each side must accept to make peace a reality "would go a long way to getting things back on track," she says.

The US continues to support the recommendations delivered earlier this year by a commission headed by former Maine Sen. George Mitchell. That commission, which took up during a worsening wave of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, laid out specific steps each side should take to quell tensions and return to negotiations.

One aim is to build on the momentum that administration officials believe was created after Bush's recent mentions of the goal of a Palestinian state. Some sources say that Arab leaders in particular who had been dismayed at the administration's disengagement hope the Powell speech, following so closely, will help nudge the two sides back to the negotiating table.

Powell has indicated in other public comments recently that Bush is not prepared to throw himself into the process - at least not yet. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is scheduled to visit the White House in early December. Powell has regular conversations with both Mr. Sharon and Arafat, but Bush will not meet Arafat until he demonstrates more effort to rein in groups behind terror attacks.

Like Bush's enticing talk of a Palestinian state, Powell's speech will reinforce a "carrot and stick" approach to the Middle East and Muslim worlds, says Mr. Shain. The US-led war in Afghanistan and even such post-Sept. 11 measures as stricter reviews of Muslim men for American visas are one thing, he says. "Now, they want to show the American approach is not just the stick, but the carrot."

But he says any American initiative will confront an ambivalence from Arab countries as well. While Arab leaders want the "superpower" in the peace process, those regimes have allowed anti-Americanism to flourish in their societies as a safety valve against disenchantment with authoritarian rule, Mr. Shain says.

A more forceful American presence where the US emphasizes its democratic principles and respect for human rights can present a problem for these regimes, he says.

Bruce Jentleson, a Middle East expert at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says that while the US may see addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as more urgent since Sept. 11, it would nevertheless be counterproductive for the US to be viewed as responding to terrorism with peace initiatives.

"In the first place, the search for a peaceful settlement deserves attention for its own merits," he says. But more important, "the Arabs wouldn't respect" the US bowing to pressure. "That would be seen as weakness, that the US can be leveraged."

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