U.S. to step back on Mideast

Israel, Palestinians must seek own pact, Bush tells Sharon

A retreat from leading role

March 21, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush sent the clearest signals yet that he will shun what many perceived as the Clinton administration's hothouse diplomacy in the Middle East and instead will give the region space to seek peace on its own unpredictable schedule.

Bush, speaking to reporters after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, promised to "work hard to lay the foundation of peace" by engaging all nations in the Middle East.

But he also vowed that "our nation will not try to force peace" on the Israelis and Palestinians until they are ready for it themselves.

Bush went further in private, telling Sharon that "the responsibility for moving the process forward lies on the parties. They will set the pace, the scope and the content for going forward," a senior Bush administration official said.

The statements reinforced assertions by Bush and other top U.S. officials that the administration wants to treat the Middle East as a whole, not just a backdrop to the Israeli-Palestinian question.

The visit by Sharon "should be seen in the process of our overall game plan - the consultations that we are having with all our partners in the region," including Egypt and Jordan, the senior administration official said.

U.S. officials tried to deflect suggestions that they were avoiding responsibility in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they hinted that Washington could turn up its involvement under the right circumstances - without saying what those circumstances might be.

"If we can find a way to bring the violence down, there are a variety of forms and avenues where negotiations might move forward," the senior official said.

Israeli-Palestinian talks mediated by President Bill Clinton at Camp David last summer ended in failure. Violence in the wake of the talks has claimed more than 400 lives, mostly Palestinian.

Bush and Sharon spoke of the need to end the violence before meaningful new talks can begin. But even if negotiations start anew, U.S. and Israeli officials made clear yesterday that they expect to move toward peace by measured steps, rather than seeking a comprehensive deal in the short term.

"Both sides now understand that we can't go for the endgame," said an Israeli diplomat. "The endgame was tried and it didn't work. The time isn't right. Let's now try to work on incremental steps to improve the situation on the ground, to create a positive dynamic."

The Palestinians want a nation of their own, with its capital in Jerusalem. Israel's former prime minister, Ehud Barak, offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat up to 95 percent of the West Bank and part of East Jerusalem. But that offer was pulled from the table when Barak lost to Sharon in the February election.

Middle East experts don't rule out the possibility that Arafat and Sharon eventually could strike a final peace deal. But the more likely possibility, they say, is that the sides will talk about new autonomy for the Palestinians - short of independence - in exchange for security assurances for Israel.

Sharon, who met with Cabinet and congressional officials in his two-day Washington visit, characterized the meeting with Bush as "very constructive and frank."

The leaders seemed to differ on some points, including the subject of Israeli blockades of Palestinian communities and increased U.S. financial aid for Israel.

U.S. officials said they stressed to Sharon that Israel's tough response to Palestinian violence may have intensified the strife. The State Department wants Sharon's government to release millions of dollars in tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority and to ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinian workers and goods.

While the issue of the tax revenue didn't surface at the Bush-Sharon meeting, the president told the Israeli leader that "we would like to see the economic health of the Palestinian Authority revived," a White House official said.

Sharon responded with a presentation of what an Israeli official called "his dilemma" of easing restrictions on Palestinians at the risk of enabling new attacks on Israeli citizens.

After taking steps to allow greater freedom of movement for Palestinians last week, "the liberalization ... was not answered by a corresponding Palestinian move but by more violence over the weekend," the Israeli official said.

Sharon brought up the subject of new U.S. aid. Israel receives $3 billion a year from the United States, and Israeli officials have said they need new assistance to strengthen the border with Lebanon and cope with the Palestinian uprising.

"I did not bring a shopping list and I did not bring specific requests" for aid, Sharon told Israeli reporters in a post-meeting briefing. "We discussed the possibilities of strategic cooperation in ways that serve both our interests."

A White House official dismissed the idea that Bush would seek new money for Israel soon.

"The president is right in the middle of a tax-cut battle and trying to move his budget forward," the official said. "I think his priority now is working on those issues."

In the Middle East, tensions seemed likely to rise after Israeli officials gave preliminary approval yesterday for more than 2,000 homes to be built in a Jewish community near Jerusalem. Final approval will take months, but the move seemed to flout U.S. officials' pleas for Israelis and Palestinians to avoid provocative acts.

Palestinians see expansion of Jewish settlements as annexation of land that should eventually be theirs. Sharon has suggested that he will rein in new settlements, but his government has made clear that the promise does not apply to communities around Jerusalem, which are considered part of Israel.

The subject of settlements did not come up in Sharon's meeting with Bush, an Israeli official said.

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