As US Secretary of State Colin Powell embarks on his first official foray to the Middle East, he is making it clear that the focus of US policy there has changed.
While the Clinton administration focused intently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Bush's foreign-policy team intends to take a broader approach, including a renewed push to contain Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
"I think the Bush administration is trying to look at the whole region as a priority," he said over the weekend in Egypt. "We are talking ... about all the issues in the region and not just one issue being more important than the others."
But issues arising in Powell's meetings in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Kuwait highlight that, despite its new regional approach, the Bush administration may be spending more time, not less, on the Palestinian-Israeli situation if it wants support of its plans for Iraq. Yesterday, Powell urged both sides to continue working for peace.
Appearing at separate press conferences with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, Powell emphasized a continued US commitment to easing the current Palestinian uprising, the most recent flare-up in the 52-year-old dispute between Israelis and the Palestinians.
"I'm here today to reaffirm the US commitment to bring a lasting peace to the Middle East," Powell said in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where he met with Mr. Arafat. "I have been profoundly troubled by the violence of the last six months."
Growing Arab support of Iraq
Containing Saddam Hussein is a priority for President Bush, who has complained that the 10-year-old sanctions against Iraq are so riddled with holes they resemble Swiss cheese.
But there is mounting criticism that these strictures, put in place after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, largely harm the country's civilians, not its leadership.
The US was harshly criticized for its Feb. 16 bombing raid on Baghdad. And in a further sign of widespread weariness toward this approach, European and Arab countries have been making overtures to Iraq.
To counter this trend, Powell is emphasizing that Iraq poses an ongoing threat to the region. But the response he is likely to hear is that people here are more concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has now claimed more than 400 lives.
"Iraq isn't important," Abdel Bari Attwan, the London-based editor of the Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, told the BBC yesterday. "The Arab-Israeli conflict is the main problem in the Middle East."
The intifada has a ripple effect, unsettling the region far beyond Israel's narrow borders. At the outset of the latest uprising, new satellite channels beamed the clashes into living rooms across the Arab world, sparking massive street demonstrations in support of the Palestinians.
The show of anger was unsettling to leaders unaccustomed to and uneasy with popular expression.
For Arab countries with large Palestinian refugee populations, like Jordan and Lebanon, there is also a worry that Palestinian anger could spread and pose a threat to their regimes.
And though he might thumb his nose at his neighbors, Hussein is something of a hero among many ordinary Arabs for bombing Israel during the Gulf War and for his current support of the intifada. Iraq has been sending checks for $10,000 to the families of Palestinians killed in this conflict. In helping the US punish Iraq, Arab countries run the risk of alienating their own people.
All this means that the US officials may have to get more actively involved in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in order to gain support for their goals on Iraq.
"Powell appears to want the moderate Arab states to line up behind tougher policy on Iraq and accept a reduction in US involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian process," says Joseph Alpher, an independent Israeli strategic analyst. "I'm not sure that will work. One thing [Powell] will likely hear in Arab capitals is, 'If you want us to acquiesce, to say nothing of support your Iraq policy, you'll have to produce a more active Israeli-Palestinian peace process.' "
Peace process here to stay, for now
But the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace look especially uncertain these days. US and Israeli elections have brought new faces and demands to the negotiating table. While Arafat emphasized yesterday that he expected the new Israeli government to adhere to promises made by its predecessor, Mr. Sharon has made it equally clear that he has no intention of doing so.
Sharon, who won't take office until he has formed a government, is still trying to establish a broad coalition that will give him some political stability. If he fails, he will form a right-wing government that can be expected to take a tougher line with the Palestinians.
Either way, the prime minister-elect stressed in his press conference with Powell that he will not negotiate until the Palestinian Authority moves to "stop acts of terror and violence."
As part of its attempt to pressure the Palestinian Authority, Israel has refused to give the Palestinians some $50 million in tax revenues. Powell has joined Europe in expressing concern that as the Palestinian Authority teeters near bankruptcy, economic hardship fuels Palestinian popular anger and contributes to violence that just begets more violence.
Even as Powell met with Arafat in Ramallah, Palestinian gunmen shot and wounded two Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the Israeli army shot a 17-year-old Palestinian.
"I think there's violence coming from both sides," Powell noted in Ramallah. "My hope today is that perhaps some avenues have been opened."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society