Bush relearns lessons of Mideast

His hands-off stance on Israeli-Palestinian fight worries Arab leaders. In turn, they aren't helping him with Iraq.

A whirlwind of Arab-Israeli violence is threatening the Bush administration's basic approach to the entire Middle East.

The prospect of outright war between Israeli tanks and Palestinian fighters is increasing international pressure on the White House to take a more active mediation role, against its will.

Meanwhile, the perception of Arab publics that the US favors Israel in the fight may be undermining its efforts to contain an old foe - Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Like his recent predecessors, George W. Bush is thus learning a lesson from Geopolitics 101: To achieve broad objectives in this volatile part of the world, the policy for Israeli-Palestinian issues must mesh with the policy for Iraq and Iran.

"Each one makes the other one harder," says Jon Alterman, program officer and Middle East specialist at the United States Institute for Peace here.

For now, the administration is sticking to its established positions.

On Tuesday, during a break from his Crawford, Texas, vacation, Bush restated his contention that Israeli-Arab violence must end before any US-sponsored peace process can begin.

Bush said that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat needs to clamp down on suicide bombers, and that Israel, in return, needs to show some restraint.

"I feel very strongly about it, because I'm worried about the cycle of violence continuing to escalate," the president said.

But the United States' moderate Arab allies, as well as many European governments, want a more forceful US approach.

They are pushing for the US to oversee some sort of confidence-building measures even as the conflict persists. Otherwise, they say, the circle of violence will simply accelerate.

In fact, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has become so frustrated with US policy that he took the unusual step of dispatching his national security adviser, Osama el-Baz, to Washington for consultations this week - despite the fact that many officials have fled the capital for rest and relaxation elsewhere.

Mr. Mubarak is not alone. The Saudi and Jordanian governments have reportedly delivered the US a similar message.

All they can talk about

In a recent swing through the Gulf region, the US assistant secretary of State for the Middle East, William Burns, found that many US friends were virtually obsessed with the problem.

"My discussions with Gulf leaders ... focused almost exclusively on the Palestinian-Israeli situation," Mr. Burns told a House panel last month.

The leaders' point is that their own populations overwhelmingly support one side in the current Mideast fighting. In that context, it is difficult for them to cooperate with the US on anything else.

And "anything else" means, specifically, Iraq. Privately, many of Saddam's government neighbors say they are no more fond of him than is the US. But he's been successful in portraying Iraq as a victim to Arab public opinion.

Many in the Arab streets believe the US embargo of Iraq only hurts Iraqi civilians. Saddam gets further points for promoting himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis joined in government-sanctioned protests against Israel in Baghdad.

"Nothing mobilizes Arab public opinion quite like the problem of the Palestinians," says Mark Strauss, a Middle East specialist and senior editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

The US is thus in something of a box. Administration officials are leery of greater involvement in Middle East peace talks, in part because they do not want to come up empty-handed, as did President Clinton.

And what, exactly, would a larger role entail? Many of the calls for greater US interest are not particularly specific.

"They want us to stop the violence, but there aren't a lot of discussions about how," says Jon Alterman of the US Institute of Peace.

Problems with Iraq policy

At the same time, US efforts to redo US-Iraq policy have hit a series of frustrating problems. The administration's efforts to refine sanctions, focusing them more narrowly on military-related items, did not make it out of the UN Security Council. And the US-led effort to patrol no-fly zones in the north and south of the country is showing signs of wear.

Last month, the US lost its first aircraft in the effort - albeit to mechanical problems, as opposed to a missile. But Iraqi weapons have come perilously close to at least two US planes in recent weeks. New Iraqi techniques, including the use of stand-off radars to guide missiles and fiber-optic cables to link command and control systems, mean that the danger to US pilots is increasing, according to the Pentagon.

Current Iraq policy "is in a sense a dual failure, because it is not undermining the government of Saddam Hussein, while it's putting Arab governments in an uncomfortable position," says Mr. Strauss of Foreign Policy.

The administration has been trying to come up with a different model for its Iraqi policy, notes Strauss, but so far, public positions haven't changed.

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