Talks go beyond Middle East peace goal

Countries struggling with long-term views, including Iraq's threat

U.S. eyes al-Qaida and Hussein

May 05, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference opens this summer, most of the key players will find themselves being pulled in competing directions.

The stated purpose of the conference is to promote a peaceful Middle East, pushing Israelis and Palestinians toward a resolution of their half-century-old conflict, laying the groundwork for a future Palestinian state and breaking down barriers to acceptance of Israel by the Arab world.

Preparations begin in earnest this week when President Bush meets at the White House on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Wednesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Israel's neighbor and uneasy peace partner.

The stakes are high. "A conference isn't a crapshoot," a senior administration official said. But the participants have divergent ideas of what regional peace should look like and are conflicted about how to achieve it.

Several U.S. goals

The United States, for instance, has several goals for the region. One is a secure Israel. Another is a nation called Palestine living side by side in peace with a Jewish state. A third is the dismantling of al-Qaida and affiliated terrorist groups whose aim is to drive the United States from the region. A fourth is to replace Saddam Hussein and prevent Iraq from developing a nuclear weapon.

Bush's drive for peace in the Middle East has already clashed with the war on terrorism, in the view of some members of Congress and even a few administration officials. The United States continues to deal with Yasser Arafat as the chosen leader of the Palestinians, even though many in Washington and the Israeli government call him a sponsor of terror and violence.

And the peace process coexists uncomfortably with the administration's policy toward Iraq. While the State Department is focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, other administration officials, particularly in the Pentagon, are intent on toppling Hussein.

"We cannot afford to let Saddam get weapons of mass destruction. That's the issue," a senior U.S. defense official said Friday. "Every day that goes by, he's pursuing this aggressively without any hindrance by inspection or anything else. And that's a fact that doesn't change. It's not affected by what goes on in the Church of the Nativity."

Even as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell prepares for a peace conference, Washington hard-liners argue that tackling Hussein should take precedence.

`Window of opportunity'

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the recent Israeli offensive into the West Bank, which netted many suspected militants and a cache of intelligence, will likely usher in four to six months of relative quiet between Israel and the Palestinians.

"This is a wonderful window of opportunity to do something about Iraq," Clawson said.

Hussein's strategy "may well be to keep the Palestinian issue alive, thinking it will inhibit us," the defense official said.

The two key players at the conference - Israel and the Palestinians - each approach it in a state of internal disarray.

Historically, Israelis have sought to avoid international conferences, fearing they would turn into quasi-tribunals with Israel in the dock.

Sharon has said he will bring a detailed peace plan to his meeting Tuesday with Bush. But the prospect of an end to the current bitter violence and a renewed peace process threatens to drive a wedge between his Likud party and its chief partner in the coalition government, the centrist Labor Party.

Sharon faces challenge

And although Sharon says he favors the ultimate creation of a Palestinian state within Gaza and part of the West Bank, some of his fellow Likud members oppose the idea. And former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is mounting an internal challenge to Sharon, wants to see Arafat exiled and the Palestinian Authority dismantled.

Sharon is likely to seek a long-term interim agreement that leaves the major disputes unresolved to await the emergence of a more cooperative Palestinian leadership.

This won't satisfy Palestinians, who want the conference to spell out a clear final outcome to negotiations with specified Israeli concessions along the way. Arafat, newly freed from Israeli confinement in Ramallah, enjoys soaring popularity as the leader of the Palestinians' struggle.

U.S. and European officials will tell him that he must abandon the struggle if he wants a state. But so far, Arafat has offered little evidence that he thinks negotiations serve Palestinians better than guns and bombs, and he faces an internal crisis if he tries to lead his people away from violence.

Even in quiet times, Arafat's advisers have entered negotiations wracked by internal divisions. This time, their preparations will be hampered further because the Palestinian Authority all but collapsed during the Israeli siege.

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