U.S. offers Middle East optimism, but no plan

Powell hopes security for Israelis and aid for Palestinians eases tension

May 12, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As President Bush promotes the ambitious goal of having Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side, administration officials acknowledge that they have no clear plan for how to get there or to overcome the political barriers presented by Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon.

A month after Bush sent Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region, a State Department official conceded that the administration is still "held hostage to extremists" who, with a suicide bomb, can derail even the tentative steps taken.

When it comes to the Middle East, the favorite word at the State Department nowadays is "forward." It's an attempt to build momentum behind a Powell strategy that calls for tightening security for Israelis, supplying humanitarian aid and improving economic prospects for Palestinians, and what Powell calls "a political way forward" toward a negotiated peace.

But the security effort remains stalled while officials await Israel's next military moves. Although Bush has announced that George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence, will return to the region to design a Palestinian security apparatus to combat terrorists, it is not clear when Tenet's trip will begin.

While humanitarian aid is being readied, the more ambitious effort to revive the Palestinian economy depends heavily on whether Arafat, the Palestinians' leader, will act to reform his corrupt and backward government.

The path toward negotiations, at the early talking stage, faces huge hurdles - not just in the region but also in Washington and even inside the administration.

"I'm not sure I could put much meat on the bones there," the State Department official said when asked about the Bush administration's strategy for a peace process.

Since Powell announced an international conference to promote a new peace process, plans have been scaled back to the point that officials speak of one or more "meetings" without giving a date or a site for the first one.

The idea of an international conference has met resistance inside the White House, which dreads raising expectations that won't be met, and in the Arab world, which fears that Israel will use it as a stalling tactic.

"We have not seen a strategic plan," said an Arab diplomat from a country friendly to the United States. "We hope they will move beyond tactics to strategy."

Another hurdle is the figure of Arafat. Sharon, Israel's prime minister, refuses to negotiate with him, and many Israelis think he wants to destroy their country. Arafat's acquiescence to the past 20 months of guerrilla war raised doubts in Washington that the Palestinian leader wants to achieve his goal of statehood peacefully and that he will ultimately show the flexibility needed for a deal.

The Bush administration's answer is to pressure Arafat, with support from Arab leaders, to reform the Palestinian Authority. U.S. officials want Arafat to make the authority more democratic, transparent in its spending, accountable to the Palestinian public, and committed to rooting out terror and block attacks on Israeli civilians.

U.S. officials deny that they want to sideline or topple Arafat, though their plans would weaken his total control over Palestinian security services and finances. The point is to "move away from the cult of personality" around the Palestinian leader, lay the foundation for a future state and not have Palestinians ruled by "an agglomeration of warlords, chieftains and power-mongers," as one official put it.

This tactic, however, may serve only to "get the Palestinians' back up," says Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem who lobbies in Washington for the Palestinian Authority. "It raises Palestinian suspicions that the plan is to get rid of Arafat," which Sharon says he wants.

Anyone who thinks Arafat will reform himself out of a job "doesn't know Arafat," Abington said. Trying to reform the Palestinian Authority before serious talks leading to statehood, he added, is "putting the cart before the horse."

But such reforms, particularly as they apply to security, might be essential to making any peace process credible to the Israeli public, says Jess Hordes, who heads the Washington office of the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League.

"To the extent that the administration is successful in getting Palestinians to do what they're committed to do in the security area, that strengthens the forces in Israel who are prepared to support a political negotiation," Hordes said.

In recent weeks, Sharon appears to have retreated from his willingness to make what he called "painful" compromises for peace. A lifelong warrior and a champion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza that Arabs insist must be removed, Sharon inspires deep skepticism in Washington that he would show flexibility or willingness to move fast enough to achieve a deal.

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