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US steps into Mideast, reluctantly

After Clinton failure, Bush administration operates with low expectations

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2002


As frequently occurs during crises in the Middle East, people are turning to the US – the global superpower and a longtime regional mediator – in search of help.

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Despite a profound reluctance to become involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Bush administration has been drawn in by a conflict that consistently moves closer to all-out war. Succumbing to this vortex has entailed several reversals.

Last week President Bush shelved his oft-repeated "understanding" of Israel's actions in favor of a demand that the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abort a massive reoccupation of Palestinian urban areas in the West Bank. Despite a partial pullback in some West Bank towns yesterday, Israel's leader says the operation will continue until "the terrorist infrastructure" is dismantled.

After insisting for many months that Israelis and Palestinians had to demonstrate a willingness to make peace before the US would reengage, Mr. Bush has sent both special envoy Anthony Zinni and Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region in the midst of the worst violence in decades. Before leaving Washington on Sunday, Mr. Powell dampened expectations of achieving even a halt to the violence.

And after insisting for many months that a cease-fire had to precede any negotiations about a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the Bush administration hinted last week that political and security talks could proceed at the same time.

To understand why the administration has not wanted to address the Israeli-Palestinian debacle, say those who have tracked US policy, it is necessary to begin with first perceptions. Bush and his aides have seemed determined from the outset not to reprise former President Clinton's fruitless effort to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"There's some kind of judgment that [Mr. Bush] made early on," says William Quandt, a scholar of US presidential policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue, "that not being Clinton means not embracing [Yasser] Arafat."

Bush and his aides want to repair what they perceive as the damage to presidential prestige that Clinton's failed peacemaking efforts incurred, says a Western diplomat in the Middle East. Bush and his aides came into office viewing Mr. Arafat as someone, the diplomat says, "who stiffed the President of the United States."

But if the administration entered office handling the Middle East conflict with a ten-foot pole, its attempts to grapple with the issue have only added to the determination to keep its distance.

Despite Arafat's longstanding reputation for prevarication and for telling people what they wish to hear, the administration has shown a thin-skinned sensitivity to dealing with true-to-form behavior from the Palestinian Authority (PA) president. "I think they have no use for him," says the Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the top members of the Bush administration.

This official lists "managing and maybe helping to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict" as only the third most important US goal in the Middle East, after prosecuting the administration's "war on terrorism" and developing a strategy for addressing the root causes of anti-Western militancy.

The diplomat concedes that the US commitment to substantive peacemaking is uncertain. "I'm not sure the Bush administration has crossed the street into a dispute-resolution mode," he says.

Drawn to the region

The new administration did not hear encouraging news about the Israeli-Palestinian issue from the previous inhabitants of the White House, says Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Cabinet minister and frequent Arafat envoy to Washington. Mr. Shaath says he imagines that Clinton relayed the following advice to Bush: "I tried every trick in the book to make the peace process work, and it failed. Don't burn your fingers."

But the steadily worsening conflict drew Powell to the region just five months after Bush took office and brought about an early instance of Arafat-induced distress.

The trip, last June, yielded a US acquiescence to Mr. Sharon's demand that seven days of absolute calm precede the implementation of a cease-fire plan devised by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.

Although US officials say that Arafat also assented to this condition, the Palestinians say they only agreed that a seven-day clock should start with Powell's visit, regardless of what happened on the ground. Nonsense, says a Western observer with knowledge of the negotiations: "There was disingenuous behavior" on the part of the Palestinians; "there was not a misunderstanding."

In Washington, this observer adds, also speaking on condition of anonymity, the Palestinian insistence that Arafat had not agreed to the seven-day period of quiet "caused a lot of heartburn."