Bush official to reprise role on Mideast team

June 19, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Searching for a foreign-policy triumph, the Clinton administration is revamping its Middle East team, naming a top Bush administration policy maker to run it.

The appointment of Dennis Ross, 44, comes as negotiations between Arabs and Israelis have slowed to a near-impasse after 18 months, requiring ingenious U.S. diplomacy to make progress.

President Clinton has committed the United States to the role of "full partner," which officials have cast in terms similar to brokering the historic Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt.

At a White House meeting yesterday with Jordan's King Hussein, the two leaders reaffirmed their goal of tangible progress in the talks this year. Mr. Clinton told the monarch that "he was going to take a real direct role in it, and we look forward to progress," press secretary Dee Dee Myers reported.

Mr. Ross, a key architect of the revived peace process after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, has been a consultant on the peace process to Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher. He was to take over a Washington think tank this week before being hired as "special coordinator" for the negotiations.

The new job will make him Mr. Christopher's chief Middle East adviser, helping to decide when and how the United States should intervene to move the talks forward, much as he did as a top aide to former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

The change is politically sensitive because, although Mr. Ross has not shown strong domestic political leanings, he worked on President George Bush's 1988 and 1992 campaigns.

Like the appointment of David Gergen as White House counselor, it is a tacit admission of the need to reach out beyond the ranks of Democrats for key policy-makers.

But aides to Mr. Christopher said the secretary, besides being impressed by Mr. Ross as a consultant, values his institutional memory.

Mr. Ross will take over the senior State Department Middle East job from Edward Djerejian, who will remain temporarily as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and then become ambassador to Israel early next year.

Talks between Israel and both Syria and the Palestinians have bogged down on the central issue of control over territory.

Israel refuses to commit itself to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, claimed by Syria, and will not say how much of the territory it will relinquish until Damascus defines the terms of a peace accord.

Israel wants full normalization of relations and open borders and is skeptical whether Syria's authoritarian president, Hafez el Assad, is willing to allow such openness.

It also wants assurances based on the structure of Syrian armed forces, including its army and the deployment of missiles, that its security won't suffer as a result of relinquishing strategic Golan territory.

In separate talks with Israel on self-government, Palestinians have insisted on dealing immediately with the explosive issues of jurisdiction over Jewish settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a topic Israel wants to postpone.

Lack of progress between Israelis and Palestinians has prevented public progress in talks between Jordan and Israel.

After President Clinton's meeting with the king yesterday, the White House seemed anxious to set aside resentment over King Hussein's support for Iraq before and during the gulf war. But the president stressed the importance of Jordan's complying with sanctions against Iraq.

Some $35 million in economic aid for Jordan is frozen until the president and Congress agree that Jordan is complying with the sanctions.

A General Accounting Office report this week said Jordan provided both material and intelligence support for the Iraqis and accused the Bush administration of misleading Congress on what it knew.

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