US shifts its role in Mideast peace

It will shun high-profile diplomacy, playing facilitator instead of enforcer.

When Israeli and Palestinian leaders announced plans for a cessation of hostilities against each other Tuesday, there was no high US official in sight prodding the two sides along.

That's just the way the White House wanted it.

Maintaining some of the deep skepticism over high-profile US involvement that marked its first-term vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration is pursuing a new tack in what all sides agree is a moment of opportunity.

The US will step up its engagement with the Palestinians while reminding Israel of the "hard choices" it faces on the road to peace - two things Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did on her brief stop in the region this week. But in doing so, the US will act more as the facilitator than the enforcer.

Extending a bit of President Bush's "ownership" philosophy to the conflict, the US is now going on the assumption that real progress in what is still a very complex and dangerous process won't be made until the two sides make the steps forward on their own.

"The administration has become firmly convinced that only if the two sides hammer out agreements between themselves is any agreement going to be able to be sold to the two peoples," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Secretary of State Rice feels very comfortable with the idea that the US should provide every support to the two sides in the negotiations, but that the negotiations really have to be between the two sides if they are going to stick."

The tone Condoleezza Rice set

That stepped-up US support was on display during Ms. Rice's visit, when she announced both a sharp rise in aid to the Palestinians and the naming of a security coordinator. As the first part of a huge increase in US aid to Palestinians, the US will release $40 million for a "quick action" program to stoke the Palestinian economy and ease living conditions. In addition, Rice said Army Lt. Gen. William "Kip" Ward would be assigned to monitor and assist in new security agreements between Israelis and Palestinians.

"There should be no doubt about the commitment of the United States to this process at this time, no doubt about the commitment of the president, and no doubt about my own personal commitment," Rice said at a Monday press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. She also announced Bush's invitations to Mr. Abbas and to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to visit the White House separately this spring.

For some analysts, the Bush administration approach is still largely a reaction to the Clinton administration's approach, which was seen by some critics as too much micromanagement of a conflict that for a number of reasons was not "ripe" for reso lution. In that context, the critics said, no amount of outside pressure was going to force an accord.

For some in the administration, any talk that the US should become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is code for demands that the US put more pressure on its close ally Israel.

Yet it is actually Mr. Sharon's initiatives in the conflict and his gestures towards the Palestinians since the death of Yasser Arafat that have allowed the US to make some high-profile but largely painless gestures of its own, some analysts argue.

"It really is Sharon who, by his recent actions, has given breathing room to the administration in which it can be seen to be upping its involvement without paying a political cost," says Ian Lustick, a Middle East expert at the University of Pennsylvania. "The two-state solution really is back on track," he says, following a number of years when the two sides wallowed in violence.

But, he says, the politically painless participation by the US will last only as long as Mr. Sharon continues to act in ways that keeps pro-Israeli pressure off the White House and US Congress.

Mr. Clawson sees the Bush administration's level of engagement "right for the moment." But he cautions that the absence of an outside party closely involved as negotiations progress can cause problems.

He notes, for example, that Mr. Abbas, when prime minister under Mr. Arafat, announced a cease-fire in 2003 that was short-lived and deepened mutual suspicions.

"The problem was that the terms of the agreement were described differently to the two sides," Clawson says. "If the US had been intimately involved, it could have said, 'Look, let's make sure we agree on what we're talking about here.' "

That kind of role may be filled by a special security coordinator, but for some analysts a higher level of US involvement will still be necessary if real progress is to be made.

BUT before that happens, another aspect of US strategy is likely to become more visible, as it did this week: the greater engagement of neighboring countries in the peace process. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hosted Tuesday's summit between Sharon and Abbas, and Jordan's King Abdullah was in attendance. Both are close allies of the White House in search of progress.

Mr. Lustick says the US will continue to stress actions and events like the Rice visit and the summit that communicate US involvement to all levels - from officials down to the street - in the Middle East.

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