WASHINGTON - President Bush moved cautiously yesterday into the post-Yasser Arafat era of Middle East diplomacy, dispatching a modest delegation to the Palestinian leader's funeral and giving little sign of a strong U.S. peacemaking role in the near future.
Despite Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's statement early this week that the United States is ready to move "actively" on an international peace plan, a senior U.S. official said yesterday that much would hinge on the capability of Arafat's successors.
"We can work to support - politically, economically and in technical terms - this new leadership, and facilitate engagement with Israel and marshal international support," the official said. But he said the new Palestinian leaders would be "judged by their actions," particularly in halting violence against Israelis.
The administration's words and actions immediately after Arafat's death exposed anew the divisions - within the U.S. government and between Bush and European allies - that analysts say have long prevented a forceful American role in ending four years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
In a statement issued by the White House, Bush avoided any mention of Arafat's stature as a champion of the Palestinian cause, saying merely that his death "is a significant moment in Palestinian history." Bush's statement omitted any specific pledge of U.S. help in achieving the president's oft-stated goal of a Palestinian state existing peacefully alongside Israel.
Bush, who never invited Arafat to the White House, barred official U.S. contact with the Palestinian leader more than two years ago after concluding that his inability to control Palestinian militants and corruption made him an unfit peace partner.
`A significant figure'
Powell's statement, in contrast, called Arafat "a significant figure in the history of the region and the world, and we know that, in the eyes of the Palestinian people, Arafat embodied their hopes and dreams for the achievement of an independent Palestinian state."
"We will do all we can to support and help the Palestinian people move forward toward peace during this period of transition," Powell said.
The idea of sending a high-level delegation to Arafat's funeral today in Cairo, Egypt, was "never under active consideration," the senior U.S. official said, although Britain and other allies dispatched their foreign ministers.
Instead, the United States sent William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for the Near East, who was to be joined by the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, David Pearce.
In a region where gestures carry potent symbolism, some analysts said Bush was missing an opportunity to reach out to Arafat's successors.
"It would, obviously, be disappointing to them," said former Sen. George J. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, who led a fact-finding mission to the region in 2000 and 2001 that produced a plan for ending Israeli-Palestinian violence. But he added, "I don't think it's going to have any lasting impact."
Burns was accompanied by two Arab-Americans, Washington attorney George Salem and Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, a nonprofit group that advocates a Palestinian state in the occupied territories.
Asali sat at Bush's table Wednesday night at a White House Iftar dinner, the meal that breaks the daylong fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Blair urges push
Bush faced prodding from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who arrived in Washing- ton last night for a two-day visit, to make a major push to jump-start the international peace plan known as the "road map," which lays out a series of requirements for both sides designed to pave the way for negotiations on a final accord.
In a statement on Arafat, Blair said Middle East peace "must be the international community's highest priority" and pledged: "We will do whatever we can working with the U.S. and the E.U. [European Union] to help the parties reach a fair and durable settlement."
Blair and other Europeans want to see the road map pushed forward in tandem with plans by Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.
They want Sharon's plan to be a step toward a final territorial settlement, while Sharon, in the view of many analysts, sees it as a move toward an interim solution that would enable Israel to put off a final deal over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Rather than press ahead with the road map, Bush is likely to focus American attention on Palestinian elections - municipal elections set for next month and presidential elections that could be held in 60 days.
Such elections could give broad-based legitimacy to the temporary leaders set to assume part of Arafat's official role - Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and the new head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mahmoud Abbas.