WASHINGTON — As Yasser Arafat exits the world stage, international leaders and American diplomats are pressing the White House to take aggressive steps to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
At the top of the list is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is scheduled to meet with President Bush for a post-election powwow later this week. The British leader, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, are calling for an international summit on the issue as soon as possible, and White House spokesmen were suggesting that it will be high on the agenda when Bush and Blair meet.
Mubarak is also stepping up his own efforts to broker Israeli-Palestinian agreements and to convince Jerusalem and Washington that Syria is serious about its desire to reach a peace deal with the Jewish state. In addition, he wants the international quartet of America, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations to hold a high-level meeting and to take an active role in the management of the peace process.
The stepped-up push for direct American involvement comes as the United States is conducting a major military campaign to retake the insurgent-filled Iraqi city of Fallujah and attempting to stabilize the country in advance of elections scheduled for January. Some observers say that with Bush seeking increased European and Arab support in Iraq, he will be under immense pressure to adopt a more hands-on approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In Washington, two of Israel’s most unstinting supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives — Middle East subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, and Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat and a senior member of the International Relations Committee — are leading a congressional delegation to the region this week with the goal of prodding the sides forward.
“The confluence of events creates an opportunity for the United States to bring some order where order does not exist and bring some hope where hope is limited, both to the Israelis and to the Palestinians,” Wexler said before he left. “We’re going to say for the umpteenth time that the Palestinians have an opportunity to advance their aspirations and dreams, and for the first time we hope they choose a peaceful path rather than a violent one.”
Meanwhile, Middle East specialists at the State Department who felt shut out of the president’s Israeli-Palestinian policy during his first term are warning that progress can be made only if the White House takes more concrete steps to bring together both sides.
Bush’s National Security Council aides are being urged to broker mutual measures between Palestinian and Israeli leaders in an effort to curb the violence in the region and to create an atmosphere that would enable a return to negotiations, said foreign diplomatic sources and American administration officials. America’s European allies and American foreign-service experts on the Middle East are concerned, sources said, that the President will not act swiftly and decisively to take advantage of what they say is a window of opportunity that will be created by Arafat’s death.
The Palestinian leader reportedly is being kept on life-support at a military hospital in France, and is generally believed to be near death. “Opportunities such as this are rare,” said a European diplomat in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If you don’t act on it, you miss it.”
Blair, who last week characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “the single most pressing political challenge in our world today,” is vigorously leading the international drive to revive the Middle East peace process. The British premier’s spokesman said the White House gave London a “clear signal of intent” to revive the peace process. The president’s father, George H. W. Bush, told the BBC this week that Blair’s call for action on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking had been heard “loud and clear” in Washington.
But State Department officials are skeptical that the White House has any plans to step up its involvement.
Until now, because of its aversion to Arafat, the White House has stifled attempts to cultivate strong ties with important leaders in the Palestinian Authority, State Department officials said.
The National Security Council took its cues for handling Israeli-Palestinian relations from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, all but abandoning the American-brokered “road map” peace plan, initially backed by the international quartet of America, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. In place of the road map, which prescribed a series of mutual Israeli and Palestinian steps that would lead to Palestinian statehood and negotiations over final-status issues, the administration has accepted Sharon’s unilateral approach. Bush’s National Security Council, headed by Condoleezza Rice, has embraced the concept of pursuing the Gaza withdrawal plan, while striving to put in place long-term interim arrangements in the West Bank that accommodate the status quo there.
Seizing the opportunity created by Arafat’s demise, however, would require presidential aides to play a more active role in Israel’s Gaza withdrawal plan, State Department sources said.
What it would take is “a presidential decision to engage in this process,” said Martin Indyk, who was President Clinton’s chief adviser on the Middle East, and now heads the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Washington’s Brookings Institute. “If the president decides that he wants peace in the Middle East as his legacy, then everybody else will fall into place and into line.”
Some observers are watching to see whether the White House embraces Sharon’s plan for creating an alternative network of roads for Palestinians in the West Bank, in an effort to disentangle them from Jewish settlers. Israel has been trying to win international support for the idea, known as the “transportational contiguity” plan, including funding from the World Bank and European nations. The Palestinian Authority is opposed. The World Bank and the Europeans are cold to the proposal, because they see it as an effort by Sharon to solidify and perpetuate the network of Jewish Settlements in the West Bank.
According to well-placed sources familiar with the plan, the president’s advisers at the National Security Council not only support the plan, but also have agreed to help Israel seek international funding for it. The plan includes restoring old West Bank roads and building new ones, which would enable freedom of movement for Palestinians inside the West Bank.
State Department officials said they are not entirely opposed to the plan, but they think it should be linked to a comprehensive American and international effort to relaunch the road map.
Some observers say there is little chance that such American or international involvement would reap fruit. No Palestinian transitional leadership would have the power and legitimacy to renounce and fight terrorism, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank. Alterman, a former senior policy planning staffer at the State Department, added: “And as long as that’s the case, we’ll wait. It’s better to wait for the right deal than to make a bad one. I don’t think this administration, especially with a Palestinian leadership in turmoil and Israeli internal politics increasingly tumultuous … is going to see this as the time to put its stamp on Arab-Israeli peacemaking.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Ha’aretz contributed to this report.