Bush team approaches Mideast with more of a hands-off style

Administration moves to establish contact with moderate Arabs

January 27, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Middle East peace talks resumed in Taba, Egypt, this week, the issues on the table were the same, passionate disagreements on land and refugees that have kept Israelis and Palestinians shedding each other's blood for 50 years.

The people doing the talking, however, had changed.

Americans diplomats were nowhere to be found. Not in the Hilton hotel that serves as negotiating headquarters. Not even in the resort of Taba. Instead, a few U.S. officials stationed some miles out of town have received sporadic telephone updates from the Israeli and Palestinian delegates doing the work.

It's a far cry from last summer at Camp David, when President Bill Clinton set himself up as a human database on Israeli-Palestinian negotiating positions and devoted the best part of two weeks to a failed attempt at a deal.

At least part of the change has to do with the newness of the Bush administration and the long odds against the talks. With less than a week in office, President Bush is disinclined to plunge into any negotiations, let alone talks such as these that might be undermined by imminent Israeli elections, U.S. officials said.

But the absence of Americans in Taba also underscores what are likely to be subtle but significant changes in Bush's approach not only to the Israeli-Palestinian question but to Middle East policy generally, according to U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts.

Heeding advice from those who argue that Israelis and Palestinians craft peace best when they do it without outsiders, the Bush administration has shown early signs of backing away from the previous administration's highly visible, high-energy preoccupation with negotiations.

At the same time, Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell are taking steps toward reaching out to moderate Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Those countries feel that they have been ignored in Clinton's push for a peace deal and have perceived the Clinton administration as overly biased toward Israel.

"These Arab states support us, and every time they do, they take it on the chin [from more extreme Arabs] because of our policies on Iraq and the perception that we're not an honest broker" in the peace process, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This administration is definitely sensitive to that."

Bush needs to cultivate good relations with Arabs not only to obtain their support in the peace process but also to try getting them to keep oil prices down and to back his efforts to reinvigorate international sanctions against Iraq.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher is quick to say that Washington has not lost interest in Middle East peace. But, he added, the situation in Taba is "a little bit different" from past sessions in which U.S. officials were often present.

U.S. officials don't rule out later, extended involvement by Washington in the peace talks. But administration officials have signaled that, if they do plunge in, their approach will differ from the Clinton administration's.

Powell has disbanded the operation headed by Dennis Ross, Clinton's special Middle East envoy. Ross has left the State Department, and his staff has been absorbed into the department that normally deals with the region.

While Powell hasn't ruled out replacing Ross or appointing an undersecretary of state to a similar role, he has shown an inclination to treat peace negotiations as a piece of a larger, regional situation - an important piece, but one that doesn't necessarily require its own U.S. bureaucracy.

At his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Powell promised "to focus our efforts on the region as a whole, and not just on the peace process standing alone."

Given Clinton's failures to clinch an Israeli deal with Syria at Shepherdstown, W.Va., last year and with the Palestinians at Camp David, many analysts believe that the abolition of Ross' position might portend a more hands-off approach.

"The U.S. government has never been successful in creating an agreement itself and moving the two parties toward it," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

But neither will Washington be able to merely watch Israeli-Palestinian relations from the wings - especially given the prospect that the high tensions in the region might rise further.

Bush's most urgent short-term task in the Middle East is to stop the violence and avert a potential war. More than 300 people have died in Israeli-Palestinian clashes since the Camp David impasse dissolved into riots and retaliations last fall, and Arab indignation has stoked fears of wider hostilities.

Wednesday, Bush talked to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in telephone calls that White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described as "introductory."

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