US Puts CIA on the Case in Mideast

To help stop bombs, spy agency will bridge security efforts of Israel, Palestinians.

A near collapse of Mideast peace prospects has pushed the United States into a new role as more player than referee.

An agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders will allow the US Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Tel Aviv to help coordinate efforts to combat terror attacks like the suicide bombings that killed 16 in a Jerusalem two weeks ago.

The move holds risks - both the political risk of failure and the physical risk of raising the American profile in a violent region with intractable conflicts.

After nearly a week of marathon meetings, US envoy Dennis Ross appears to have helped the peace process by addressing Israel's security concerns. The new trilateral approach may soon lure the two sides back to the negotiating table.

CIA representatives operating in Israel and in the Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank and Gaza will share more information with their local counterparts in an attempt to preempt further violence from Islamic rejectionist groups suspected in the July 30 bombings, American officials say.

The move also draws the US deeper into trying to salvage the Oslo peace pact.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has often complained that its ability to gather information and prevent terrorism is hampered by its limited budget and by its security control of only 3 percent of West Bank.

Ross and Clinton administration officials were upbeat about the potential of the new three-way effort to restore security cooperation, saying that the mission had paved the way for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to make her first visit to the Middle East later this month.

"We have moved things a lot - we have had a beginning," Ross said in a CNN interview.

But Israeli and Palestinian leaders were much less sanguine about whether the Ross trip had really put the two peoples back on the same road towards peace.

Israeli officials said that real cooperation from Palestinian security officials still remained to be seen. And Palestinians complained that the US envoy had failed to get Israel to lift a number of punitive sanctions leveled at them after the bombing.

Over the coming days and weeks, Israeli officials say they need to see action. Security sources said that in meetings this week, PA officials were given a list of about 150 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists - representing the two main Palestinian militant groups - who Israel wants arrested.

"We want a transfer of information to us that we know that the PA has about the suicide bombings, and the application of the information that we give them," said David Bar-Illan, a top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Until then, he said, Israel will not ease measures such as the bar of Palestinian travel from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel or a release of the $40 million in tax revenues Israel has withheld from the PA earlier this month.

"If we see some serious arrests of serious people and reports on the interrogations and information on the bombing ... then obviously there will be a release of some of funds. We will treat the Palestinian response with a sliding scale," he added, the more the PA cooperates, the more Israel will withdraw its measures aimed at putting pressure on PA President Yasser Arafat.

Palestinian cabinet leader Hanan Ashrawi slammed this quid pro quo as "political blackmail," saying that it proved the Ross visit had not sufficiently addressed Palestinian concerns.

"We haven't seen any tangible results. Mr. Ross kept talking about only one issue, security, but I think that he has to be enlightened that security is not just a one-way street," PA Cabinet leader Hanan Ashrawi said. "I think that Madeleine Albright can bring it back to scope when she comes."

The main achievement, Ms. Ashrawi said, was a demonstration that the US was not going to start rolling back its involvement in the process out of fear that it could be a losing game for the Clinton administration's foreign policy.

"We understand that the fact of the visit itself is an indication ... that the US has decided to play an active role," Ashrawi said.

Despite recent complaints from Palestinians that the US had taken a back seat as the peace process crumbled further, US sources here say there is an increased push from the Clinton Administration to get talks back on track before September, the month in which Israel was scheduled to make another one of the three further handovers of West Bank land to the PA, according to the new schedule agreed to this January in a US-brokered accord.

A US official here confirmed that the "new" security mechanism does not constitute new direction altogether. "The security mechanism that is in place is very similar to what took place before," said the official, who requested anonymity. "What we're looking for is a different atmosphere."

And in the end, the biggest carrot that may have forced progress may have come in the form of financial pressures on the PA. Just as Israel withheld tax revenues due the PA - which constitutes some two-thirds of the PA budget - Congress let expire an act that makes monetary aid and political relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization possible. US officials have assured the PA that they can help ensure the funds will not be cut off if the PA cooperates with security demands.

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