US rethinks role as Middle East referee

Sharon visits Washington as Arab nations press US to get more involved in conflict.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon makes his fourth call on President Bush today, the debate over how much pressure the US should apply to Israel to curtail its hard-line approach to the Palestinians doesn't even figure on the agenda.

It wasn't always so. But in the wake of the war on terrorism, the yellow "caution" lights the United States once flashed at Israel have largely turned green.

And the sea of green - on everything from Israel's isolation and virtual imprisonment of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to its comparison of the struggle with Palestinians to the war on terrorism - is drawing into question the ability of the US government to be a balanced arbiter in one of the world's most dangerous conflicts.

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The questioning arises as the Middle East friction demonstrates a worrisome potential to boil over into a larger regional conflict tied up with the US war on terrorism.

Last December, it was Mr. Sharon's conclusion that he left a White House visit then with a "green light" to immediately toughen Israel's military response to Palestinian violence. Outside Arab countries, criticism of the Israeli response has been relatively muted in the face of gruesome civilian killings.

This time, Sharon arrives armed with Israeli evidence of Iran's support for the Islamic extremist organization Hizbullah - which it says is helping units of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization set up shop in southern Lebanon. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Eliezer, also in the US, says he will ask the US to hit what Israel says are joined Hizbullah and Al Qaeda forces in Lebanon.

In response, Iran - stung by seeing itself included in Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" trilogy with Iraq and North Korea - is accusing the US of making a "strategic blunder" by backing Israel's most recent policies toward the Palestinians.

In a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi - considered one of the Iranian government's more moderate officials - warned that the US stance undermines international support for the war on terrorism.

Yet the latest diplomatic maneuverings do not mean that interested parties in the region and around the world have given up on seeing the US don the referee's black-and-white stripes. With a keen recognition that no power can replace the role and influence of the US, Arabs, Europeans, and others are testing what leverage they have to encourage an even-handed American approach to the Middle East conflict.

"We hope America will resume its role as an honest broker in this very serious Palestinian-Israeli problem," says Amre Moussa, secretary-general of the League of Arab States and former Egyptian foreign minister. Mr. Moussa, who is also in Washington, says the peace process "looks to many like something of the past." The US can reverse that perception, he says, but only if it acts to pressure both sides to takes steps toward resuming negotiations.

Some US observers contend that much of the response from Palestinian supporters is really a reaction to the fact that the US under Bush has moved away from the position of "honest broker" that was promoted in the last administration.

"That was never a realistic policy or one that a lot of people liked," says Bruce Jentleson, a Mideast expert at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Israel's historic ties to the US and its survival as a democracy in an undemocratic region are among the reasons the honest-broker rubric hasn't always sat well.

State Department officials insist the US has not given up on either the peace process or it own role of mediator. "We're not rushing to sign the death certificate on our efforts with the two parties to end the violence and achieve peace," says one official.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is sticking with his position, repeated last weekend to Jordan's King Abdullah, that the US "wants to work with the two parties in as balanced a way as we can," the official says.

Some observers speculate that Mr. Powell's stance for a balanced US approach that continues to pressure Israel to ease its harsh control over average Palestinians' lives is carrying less and less weight in the administration. Some see the White House moving closer to Israel, which it views as fighting terrorists in a hostile neighborhood, much as the US is doing globally.

But State Department officials point out that Bush supports creation of an independent state called Palestine, and note that last weekend the president assured King Abdullah that the US does not intend to cut off ties to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Still, with Israeli officials pressuring the US to act on broader terrorist threats in the Mideast, some observers are cautioning against taking support for Israel any further.

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