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Bush Urged To Take Lead in Peace Talks

Several former American officials, as well as liberal Jewish groups, activists and philanthropists including George Soros, are ramping up efforts to press the Bush administration to take a more active role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

This week, a bipartisan group of former senior diplomats, including Dennis Ross and Thomas Pickering, issued a report calling for more American involvement in the region at a time when the unilateralist policy pursued by Israel seems to have faltered in Gaza and in Lebanon. The group, convened under the aegis of the dovish Israeli Policy Forum, urged the administration to mediate a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, focus on the actions of the Palestinian government rather than the declarations of Hamas leaders, support the Saudi initiative, engage Syria and strengthen Lebanon’s government.

The report comes just weeks after IPF officials participated in a meeting with a top aide to Soros, representatives of other left-leaning Jewish groups and former Israeli and American officials. . A report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency described the meeting as an initial step in setting up an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerhouse lobby known as Aipac. Participants are denying that the initiative was a Soros-led effort or that the specific goal was to take on the established pro-Israel lobby, but confirmed that the meeting focused on how best to press Congress and the Bush administration to back greater American engagement in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a position that would set up a potential clash with Aipac.

A follow-up meeting focused on funding will reportedly take place in New York on October 26. Backers of the proposed left-wing effort could face an uphill fight, judging from a recent report in Yediot Aharonot. Israel’s largest circulation newspaper reported last week that Bush had indicated to Israel that the United States would not take kindly to a reopening of talks between Jerusalem and the Syrian regime. The Bush administration has already been facing criticism from Arab and European allies for not being more active on the Palestinian front, a claim echoed by the bipartisan group of former diplomats organized by IPF. “All of us are extremely concerned that the U.S. is taking too passive a role in the Palestinian conundrum as things continue to go downhill,” said Samuel Lewis, a senior policy adviser to the IPF and a former American ambassador to Israel and director of policy planning at the State Department in the first Clinton administration. “Whether anyone’s advice makes a difference with this administration is highly questionable, but it’s difficult to stay silent.”

Shibley Telhami, a professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, challenged the notion that the administration is obstructing peace efforts. “I believe there is no policy decision to prevent peace efforts, especially with Syria,” he said. “The truth is that the administration is divided on the issue, and so are the Israelis.”

Earlier this month, the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution group, sponsored a petition signed by more than 130 world leaders calling for urgent international action toward a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Robert Malley, the ICG’s Middle East director and a former Clinton administration adviser, said the group was also working to foster bipartisan support for more active American diplomacy in the region. “The situation is verging on catastrophe but at the same time, there is an opportunity because of the mood in Europe and in the Arab world,” he said.

While some experts are advocating an international conference to jumpstart peace efforts, others are pushing the administration to appoint a senior envoy to deal with the Palestinian dossier.

The flurry of efforts by outside experts to prod the administration has gained prominence in recent weeks with the higher profile taken by a congressionally mandated task force on Iraq headed by former secretary of state James Baker, which has indicated that it would propose novel solutions for Iraq but also engage pariah regimes such as Syria and Iran.

The Baker group will issue its recommendations after the mid-term congressional elections, precisely the time when the advocates of greater American involvement on the Palestinian track believe the administration is most likely to change tack.

While Democrats have not been vocal in their criticism of the administration’s stance on the Palestinian issue, one of their leading voices on foreign policy did speak out recently.

“There has never been progress in the Middle East without the United States acting as a catalyst,” Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations committee and a presidential hopeful, told reporters during a conference call late last month. “We should have some very important person on the ground there, ready to explore all the initiatives… In the meantime, we should not be out there proposing a route of settlement, imposing a route of settlement… The idea that we don’t have somebody 24/7 available to the leaders of Israel, on the ground — thinking of nothing but the Israelis’ interest and how they negotiate through this incredibly dangerous neighborhood they live in — is a big mistake.”

The Bush administration’s preoccupation with Iraq and Iran and the growing tensions in the Palestinian territories have prompted European officials to press the administration to show more flexibility in interpreting the three conditions set forth by the international community for dealing with and providing funding to a Palestinian unity government and resume aid: recognition of Israel, acceptance of past agreements and renunciation of violence.

At the same time, Washington’s Arab allies, worried by the outcome of the Lebanese war and the deterioration in Gaza, are stepping up mediation efforts. The Arab League has urged the United Nations Security Council to take the lead in shepherding a comprehensive settlement. Egypt has been negotiating for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Palestinian militias in Gaza. And Qatar has tried to bridge differences between Fatah and Hamas.

In addition, Saudi Arabia has been pushing a new diplomatic effort to jumpstart its 2002 peace plan, which offered Arab normalization with Israel in exchange for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders. Riyadh has indicated that it is willing to discuss the most contentious issues of its plan with Israel, namely borders and refugees. Israeli officials are seen as warming to the Saudi efforts — there have been reports of meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself and a senior Saudi official in Jordan last month — while the Bush administration has remained silent.

Some leading Israeli politicians, including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, have advocated responding to Syrian president Bashar Assad’s repeated peace overtures rather than rejecting them out of hand.

Since the end of the Lebanon war, Assad has made several statements suggesting a willingness to resume peace talks with Israel that broke down in 2000, while also threatening to go to war unless Damascus regains control of the Golan Heights.

Syria’s president cast doubt on Israel’s ability to enter peace talks with his country in an interview with the BBC broadcast Monday. “We don’t know if this government is strong enough to move toward peace,” Assad said, apparently alluding to Olmert’s falling popularity.

Olmert has rejected any peace efforts with the Syrians for now, reportedly hewing to the Bush administration’s policy of isolating a regime weakened by its forced withdrawal from Lebanon last year in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

“Unlike the Americans, Israelis are having a real debate about whether to talk to Syria or not,” said Joshua Landis, the co-director of the Center of Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the SyriaComment blog. “It seems clear that President Bush still clings to the notion that he is going to win the war to reform the Greater Middle East, which was begun with the invasion of Iraq. At the time, a number of his closest advisors believed this would include regime change in Damascus. I think the resistance to opening the door to discussions with Syria (and Iran) stems from the stubborn hope among Bush advisers that a turn around in their Middle East fortunes will materialize and that it is not too late for a regime-change opportunity in Syria.”

The United States is not the only key Western country to adopt a hardline stance on Syria. French President Jacques Chirac has repeatedly stated that the Assad regime should not be engaged, a position most commentators attribute to Chirac’s belief that Syria murdered his close friend Hariri in a car bombing last year.

After the Yediot Aharonot report claiming that Bush opposed Israeli talks with Assad, Americans for Peace Now urged the administration to clarify its stance and express its full support for such an overture. Debra DeLee, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, reportedly took part in the recent meeting of Jewish doves, held on unspecified date in September. According to JTA, other participants included Morton Halperin, a director of Soros’ Open Society Institute and a veteran of senior positions in the Clinton, Nixon and Johnson administrations; Mara Rudman, a Clinton-era member of the National Security Council and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank; Daniel Levy, a former adviser to dovish Israeli politician Yossi Beilin who now works at the New America Foundation, another Washington think tank; David Elcott, the executive director of IPF; M.J. Rosenberg, director of IPF’s Washington office; Jeremy Rabinovitz, chief of staff to Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat who often backs positions taken by the dovish pro-Israel groups; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and his deputy, Mark Pelavin; and representatives of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, another dovish, pro-Israel advocacy group.

JTA reported that Elcott and Halperin are leading the new initiative, and identified another leader of the initiative as Jeremy Ben-Ami, a senior policy adviser to President Clinton who now works for Fenton, one of Washington’s largest public relations outfits. But one participant said Elcott did not attend the initial meeting and described it as an effort not being guided by any one person or persons. The source also said that the participants met as individuals, not as officials representatives of their organizations.

Participants, JTA reported, did not want to go on the record because goals for the October 26 funders’ meeting are still fluid. Differences are structural as well as philosophical: Some participants speak of wrapping together a number of the existing groups at some future date; others speak of a support structure that would back the groups as they continue to operate separately.

There also are differences about the degree to which the new structure should confront Aipac. The upcoming October 26 meeting to discuss funding is taking place the same day of a New York City retreat for board members of the IPF. It is not clear whether the potential funders will meet at the board retreat, or separately. Soros is to attend the meeting for the new initiative, and other major Jewish liberals are invited, including Peter Lewis, who like Soros is a major contributor to, the Web-based, liberal fund-raising group; Edgar and Charles Bronfman, former liquor magnates who are major contributors to Israel and Jewish causes; and Mel Levine, a former Democratic congressman and high-powered West Coast lawyer.

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