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Bush Policy Likely To Spur Mideast Crisis

by Jim Lobe

on Ariel Sharon
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The March 20 meeting between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke no new ground, as the new administration here appeared determined to maintain its hands-off stance on the delicate Israeli-Palestinian conflict for as long as possible.

But most Mideast specialists here believe that it is only a matter of time -- and probably a very short amount of time at that -- before Bush is faced with a new crisis in the simmering, six-month-old Palestinian "Intifada II" that will force Washington to plunge back into the fray to get the two parties talking again.

"They can probably get a month or so out of this, but, at some point, they're going to have to come forward with something in the way of an initiative, or the unravelling (of the Oslo peace process) will simply continue and there will be an explosion," according to James Zogby, head of the Arab- American Institute (AAI) here. "Once that occurs, the wait-and-see attitude will go by the boards, and they're going to have to get back in."

Sharon's visit, the first by a Mideast leader to the White House since Bush's inauguration, followed the formulation of his coalition government earlier this month. To Washington's relief, the right-wing Sharon was able to coax a number of opposition Labor Party figures into joining the government, most notably Shimon Peres, a former prime minister who helped launch the Oslo peace process eight years ago and has been one of its strongest Israeli advocates.

Sharon's visit came as the new administration here is still putting together its foreign-policy team. While top posts have been filled, second- and third-tier positions -- key players in both developing and implementing policy -- have yet to be filled. For example, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs -- normally the top post focused on the Middle East -- has not yet been named.

As a result, the Bush team has indicated only broad policy objectives which it hopes to pursue and otherwise has confined itself to traditional bromides, such as appeals to the Palestinians to end violence and to the Israelis to avoid provocations, ease tight travel and other restrictions on the Palestinians which fuel the anger behind the intifada.

The effective closure of many Palestinian towns and villages, as well as the withholding by Israel of more than $50 million in taxes owed to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA), have brought the economy on the West Bank and Gaza, and even the PA itself, to the verge of collapse, a concern conveyed directly to Sharon by U.S. officials during his visit here.

"If Arafat can't pay his own police, how can the Israelis expect them to keep the peace?" notes one official who described the Israeli siege of Palestinians towns and villages as "counterproductive in the extreme."

As for the broader picture, the Bush administration has made it clear that its top priority in the region for now is not, as it was for former president Bill Clinton, to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to a successful conclusion through a final-status agreement covering such explosive issues as Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

In its view, Clinton's failure, despite his intense involvement, to achieve such a result showed that such an approach was impossible, at least for now, and that the best that can be hoped for was an incremental, step-by-step approach that will take much more time.

That view was reinforced by Bush himself today who, during a photo-opportunity with Sharon, said, "I told him that our nation will not try to force peace; that we will facilitate peace and that we will work with those responsible for peace."

No White House invite for Arafat
Bush's top foreign-policy aides have made clear that their top strategic priority in the region is the containment of Iraq, to be achieved initially by rallying the badly frayed Gulf War coalition of European and Arab states behind a tough sanctions regime which would prevent Baghdad from importing anything that could be used to bolster its military power.

That was the primary message delivered by Secretary of State Colin Powell during a whirlwind tour of the region last month. The trip was prompted by Iraq's recent success in breaking through the economic and diplomatic isolation imposed on it by the UN Security Council after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The administration is hoping that the Arab Summit, scheduled to take place later this month in Amman, will adopt a resolution supporting the new sanctions strategy, and it is planning to press Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah, who will visit with Bush here separately early next month, to get in line, according to knowledgeable sources.

But, as Powell was told by the same leaders during his trip, Washington's success in containing Iraq is inextricably bound up with reviving progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Their broader priorities to contain Iraq and maintain good relations with the oil-producing Arab states will bring them back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because those same states are very concerned about the conflict," says Lewis Roth, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. "In order for them to go along with a re-invigorated sanctions regime, the administration will have to address the issue."

The AAI's Zogby sees it much the same way. "The administration wants to re-establish a coalition (against Iraq). But in order to do that, they need some credits, and they don't have any right now. The only conceivable place they can get the political credit they need is helping on the Palestinian track."

While the process of putting together a policy will probably not be completed at least until the introductory rounds of consultations with Abdullah and Mubarak are over, the portents in that regard are not particularly favorable.

Despite their efforts to persuade Sharon to ease the closures and pay the PA the money it is due, Bush pointedly declined to say during Sharon's visit whether he will invite Arafat, a frequent White House guest under Clinton, any time soon. U.S. officials, echoing Sharon's conditions re-launching peace talks with Arafat, suggest they want the Palestinian leader to do more to halt the violence first.

But that may be a mistake, according to Zogby who says Washington should urge both sides to re-engage on the basis of last year's Sharm-al-Sheikh accord under which Arafat agreed to do everything possible to control violence in exchange for the creation of a U.S.-led international commission to sort out responsibility for the conflict which has taken more than 400 lives -- almost all of them Palestinian -- since last September.

"The Palestinians need to have something in their hand. To ask Arafat to take unilateral action right now is to ask him to commit civil war on his own people," according to Zogby. "If they were realistic, they would understand that and go back to Sharm as an agreed-upon framework."

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Albion Monitor March 26, 2001 (

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