WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration sees the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and enmity toward the Palestine Liberation Organization among moderate Arab regimes as potentially fruitful avenues to restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process, a senior administration official says.
The Golan Heights, which Israel occupied during the 1967 war and annexed in 1981, is an "interesting area for diplomacy," the official said. A deal between Syria and Israel "ought to be potentially doable."
The PLO's disfavor among the gulf states and in Egypt because of its recent support of Iraq could be an avenue to explore in solving the Palestinian conflict, the official suggested. "The question of who talks for the Palestinians was a problem all along," with Israel refusing to accept the PLO as a negotiating partner.
In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, many moderate Arab states have come to a conclusion similar to Israel's about PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who sided with Iraq. This, said the official, "opens up some interesting avenues to explore."
These are two ideas taking shape as the administration embarks on a postwar effort to turn the defeat of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein into lasting regional stability and open the way to peace between Israel and its Arab enemies.
The United States is seizing on opportunities created by the allied coalition's victory over Iraq that may not last, according to the official and outside analysts:
* Defeat of the strongest country in the region that was a force for instability.
* The fact that Israel and moderate Arab states found themselves on the same side of the conflict.
* Realization among Palestinians that "no one can deliver what they want."
* Realization in Israel, following Scud missile attacks from hundreds of miles away, that territory is not synonymous with security.
* Proof that the United States is a dependable ally.
* U.S.-Soviet cooperation.
* The effectiveness of the United Nations Security Council as a "vehicle."
Cautious about raising expectations, the official said that there are "some real obstacles to progress": decades, if not centuries, of animosity, and an estrangement and alienation between Palestinians and Israelis that is deeper than ever.
Policy-makers hold firmly to the view that both peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and resolution of the Palestinian conflict must progress simultaneously. Israel wants state-to-state talks first; for Arab states, in part because of domestic pressure, the plight of Palestinians is a top priority.
Both Syria and Saudi Arabia could be key, according to sources familiar with administration planning.
The United States has been "deepening and extending" its dialogue with Syria, a former pariah because of its sponsorship of terrorism, and President Hafez el Assad showed himself a reliable partner in the gulf crisis.
While Mr. Assad harbors a deep distrust toward Israel, he has made "a calculated acceptance" of the Jewish state, an official said.
The Golan Heights, while strategically important, has never been "theologically" crucial to Israel, the senior official said.
Saudi Arabia has crossed some crucial thresholds in the gulf conflict, starting with its acceptance of Western troops on its soil, according to one source familiar with administration thinking. As a result, it may now be willing to assert a leadership role in the region rather than basing its actions on Arab consensus.
One role it could play is to foster development of new leadership among the Palestinians as an alternative to the PLO that would be more acceptable to Israel as a negotiating partner, according to one source familiar with administration thinking.
Still angry with Jordan for siding with Iraq, administration officials nonetheless consider Amman as having a potentially key role in the region.
"Geography is still geography," one said. But to win back U.S. cooperation, Jordan will have to demonstrate anew that it aligns itself with moderate states.
In the coming weeks of diplomacy, the administration envisions the Soviets, one-time patrons of Iraq who nevertheless cooperated with the United States during the gulf crisis, as playing a useful role both through the United Nations and in curbing the flow of arms to the region.
"It can create a context in which countries would feel much more prepared to make decisions or compromises because they wouldn't be so worried that afterwards the Soviet Union would come around and introduce a joker" into the process.
How much of a role the reinvigorated Security Council will play i unclear and may well be determined by President Bush, a former U.N. ambassador, one senior administration official said.