Diplomacy breaking Mideast stalemate

Bush's new involvement seen to pave way for gains

April 29, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A weekend of high-level telephone diplomacy produced a deal to free Yasser Arafat, carved out a new role on the ground for Americans and the British in the Middle East and brought the first results of U.S.-Saudi cooperation in halting Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

From Crawford, Texas, where Bush spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and from Houston, Washington, London and Jerusalem, officials from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Britain produced a plan to end a monthlong standoff between Israelis and Palestinians at Arafat's compound in Ramallah that the two warring sides were unable to resolve themselves.

This past weekend brought a deeper involvement by Bush in the details of Middle East negotiations that he had previously sought to avoid. His efforts reflect a recognition in the White House that a range of American interests in the region, including long-term security for Israel, U.S. standing in the Arab world, the war on terrorism and a possible military campaign against Iraq, hinge on controlling the deadly Israeli-Palestinian spiral.

The plan worked out calls for British and American personnel to act as "supervisory" or "supplemental" wardens in guarding Palestinians accused of assassinating Israel's tourism minister and of arranging for a shipment of sophisticated weapons from Iran.

Hint of U.S. role

The warden plan marks the first time U.S. personnel will be stationed full time in the Palestinian territories and appeared to foreshadow a broader American monitoring role if Israelis and Palestinians agree to a cease-fire.

"To the extent that it says we're willing to be part of ensuring that commitments are met, it's the start of an American monitoring presence," a senior State Department official said yesterday.

Britain rushed an assessment team to the region to prepare for dispatching the wardens, who will help guard the prisoners at a Palestinian detention site in the West Bank or Gaza. Most of the wardens will be British prison personnel. They will be joined by "a couple" of Americans, but the official said it was unclear which U.S. agency would send them.

In the past, the CIA has played a key role in mediating between Israeli and Palestinian security officials.

"They will make sure that [the prisoners] stay there and are properly incarcerated and make sure they can't make cell-phone calls to plan further attacks," the State Department official said.

Accepting the deal, Israel agreed to free Arafat from a siege enforced by Israeli tanks and to withdraw its forces from Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Israelis said they acted on a personal appeal by Bush and despite a bloody Palestinian attack Saturday inside a settlement in the West Bank.

Speaking at his ranch, Bush said he believed yesterday's developments will "prove to be important steps along the path to peace in the Middle East."

"I've called on all parties to step up to their responsibilities, and today's developments are a positive sign that they are doing so," he said.

Bush said "Chairman Arafat is free to move around and free to lead." He called on the Palestinian leader to "condemn and thwart terrorist activities" against Israelis, and said he "must earn my respect by leading."

Bush also said the world now needs to "help end the suffering of the Palestinian people" with humanitarian relief and economic help.

"There are a lot of people who have no hope in the Middle East. There are some Palestinians - a lot of Palestinians - who wonder whether or not life is worth living," Bush said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair had raised the idea of joint U.S.-British monitors during his meeting with Bush this month in Crawford. Bush said yesterday that Britain had provided "a framework for international monitoring" of the prisoners.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also raised the idea during his recent trip to the region as a way of ending the standoff in Ramallah and getting Israelis and Palestinians to move into a cease-fire. Powell's trip produced little result, with Israel balking at a complete withdrawal from the territory it had re-occupied and Arafat refusing to declare a cease-fire.

Bush takes lead

Bush assumed a direct role in brokering an end to the standoff after his five-hour meeting in Crawford on Thursday with Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia.

In a blunt exchange, the Saudi demanded that Bush play a stronger mediating role in resolving the conflict and act to restrain Sharon. He presented Bush with eight steps he wanted the United States to take the lead in carrying out, including ending the siege in Ramallah and securing an Israeli withdrawal.

Bush, in turn, stressed that Arab leaders had to assume more responsibility for ending Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis.

On Friday, Bush said it was time to end the Israeli incursion: "It's now time to quit it altogether. It's time to end this." Powell spoke by phone the same day with the Israeli prime minister.

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