Why change is stalled in Mideast

Officials from Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia visited the White House yesterday, but diplomacy is stymied.

America's three closest Arab allies sent their foreign ministers to Washington Thursday hoping against hope to find a diplomatic path out of the Palestinian-Israeli cycle of violence.

What they want is a bridge across the chasm between the American and Israeli focus on security first, and their own view – supported by the Europeans – that progress can come only with equal advances on political and economic fronts.

But with the revival of attacks on Israeli civilians this week, and domestic political considerations preoccupying both President Bush – heading into midterm congressional elections – and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, expectations for progress before next year are modest at best.

Both President Bush and Mr. Sharon see their respective "wars on terror" as the central focus of their administrations. And for Mr. Bush – and a significant slice of the US electorate – Israel's security is inextricably intertwined with that war.

Both leaders, each with public approval ratings around 70 percent, can interpret that voters are supportive of their current approach. "The security situation is the main factor in Sharon's popularity," says Mina Tsemach, director of DAHAF Institute, an Israeli polling firm. "If he were to withdraw from the territories and terrorism would continue, his popularity could drop."

While Bush has called upon the Palestinians to elect leaders "not compromised by terrorism," any Palestinian elections won't take place until January – and Yasser Arafat says he won't be stepping down.

All this adds up to scant prospects for movement – and little satisfaction for the visiting Arab ministers.

"The [Bush] administration is not likely to move with any great energy until after the [US November] elections," says Michael Hudson, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University in Washington. Noting the Arabs and other players are looking for the US to pressure Israel on its military occupation of Palestinian territories, Mr. Hudson adds, "There is a domestic disincentive to take measures they know would aggravate the pro-Israel community [in the US]."

The foreign ministers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan met with Bush Thursday, carrying plans from a Cairo meeting last week for advancing Palestinian reforms, including the creation of a new prime minister position in Palestine – to be filled by a new parliament.

But as Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told journalists in Washington Thursday, the plan's workability is "contingent on pressure on the Israeli occupation." Egypt has also said it would work with Palestinians to reform their security forces, but Mr. Maher said that "cannot happen in an occupied land."

Despite deep private disappointment among Arab leaders with Bush's June 24 speech (in which he placed responsibility for progress on the Palestinians and their ability to halt all violence) the Arabs are looking at how to work with – and perhaps around – the US demands.

Maher also made a pitch for US leadership that transcends domestic electoral concerns. He said the US "must not allow itself to address international problems according to internal considerations."

Such pleadings are not likely to budge the US, especially when the administration sees its core theme of terrorism and its electoral interests so neatly intertwined. "You can talk about parallelism all you want, but the political fact is that the US and Israel will not pull back from their stated positions unless there is some kind of assurance that what keeps happening will be stopped," says Sam Lewis, a former US ambassador to Israel. "I don't think anyone should kid themselves about it."

In Israel, despite the attacks at Emmanuel in the West Bank Tuesday and in Tel Aviv Wednesday, Israeli officials are convinced that their strategy is working.

"The Israel Defense Forces are going to stay there as long as is necessary. It prevents bloodletting," says Deputy Interior Minister Gideon Ezra said of the occupation of the West Bank cities, where more than 700,000 Palestinians have been under curfew for nearly a month.

"Sharon's main concern is domestic politics," says Uzi Benziman, a columnist for Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper. "He wants to come to the election as popular as he is today, and in the process defeat [Likud rival Benjamin] Netanyahu."

Israel's elections are likely to take place in November 2003, but planning for a Likud primary in April is already under way, with Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu each trying to sign up thousands of new party members.

"Today I think Sharon could win in the primaries, but by April this could all change. He wants to make sure that doesn't happen," says Hanan Krystal, the political analyst for the Israel Broadcasting Authority. According to a poll taken in May by the DAHAF institute, Sharon scored a popularity rating of nearly 70 percent, compared with numbers in the high 40's before Israel launched its West Bank offensive in late March.

Both Sharon and Bush are in similar domestic political positions, says Benziman. "Both men want to keep the conflict on low profile, with Bush anxious to come to the November elections as popular as he is today."

If suicide bombings continue, it is likely Sharon will respond with a military operation in Gaza against targets of Hamas, Mr. Benziman says. Mr. Ezra stresses that security forces in the West Bank towns have thwarted bombing attempts, including one in the town of Qalqilya last Friday.

Sharon believes that the US fully supports his approach to the Palestinians, a top Israeli official says. "Relations between Israel and the US have never been as strong, as intimate and as encompassing so many fields as today."

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