WASHINGTON — The capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will lead to an intensification of White House efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, diplomatic sources say.
Hussein’s capture, administration officials told Israeli and Arab diplomats this week, is likely to create a changed atmosphere in the Middle East that should translate into progress on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track. In particular, administration officials are hoping that Arab regimes will pressure the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, to drop his preconditions for opening talks with Prime Minister Sharon. American officials also want Qurei to confront militant Palestinian factions more aggressively, rather than merely seek to convince them to agree to a cease-fire with Israel.
At the same time, the administration is expressing displeasure to Israeli officials, both publicly and privately, over their increasing threats to take unilateral steps, including annexation of some disputed territory. Bush aides say they worry that talk of unilateral steps, even toward the dismantling of some Jewish settlements in the territories, represents an Israeli attempt to abandon the American-backed “road map” to peace. The American plan outlines steps both sides must take to reach a negotiated settlement that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state.
American officials “are not in favor of this, and that’s no secret,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said of the unilateralist approach, during a briefing with reporters here after his meetings with administration officials. Shalom, who also opposes this approach, met Monday with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
The renewed administration activity coincides with a revival of Egyptian-brokered talks between the Palestinian Authority and Islamic extremist factions to secure a cease-fire, which Egypt and the P.A. hope will pressure Israel to soften its positions. Cease-fire talks began last month but collapsed after Hamas refused to undertake a cease-fire without a parallel commitment from Israel, something Israel has refused to give.
Israeli and American observers said the renewed Palestinian talks were partly a response to the capture of the Iraqi strongman, which is believed to have dampened the militants’ spirit.
In its efforts to woo Sharon, Egypt is to send its foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, on a rare official visit to Israel next week. In a further gesture, Maher reportedly has agreed not to visit Arafat during his stay.
The renewed diplomacy is putting Sharon in a difficult position, sources here say. President Bush and his aides see “Sharon doing virtually nothing to implement the road map, while already talking about what he’ll do after the road map fails,” said a former U.S. diplomat with close ties to Middle East policy-makers in the administration. “That doesn’t look good.”
Earlier this week, Sharon was quoted in the Israeli press as telling Israeli legislators that he does not expect Qurei to last in office more than six months. Sharon reportedly complained that Qurei has not made any effort to fight terrorism.
Sharon’s frustration with Qurei is shared by the Bush administration, pro-Israel sources said. According to Israeli sources, American officials have told their Israeli counterparts in recent days that Qurei is investing too much energy in efforts to convince militant Palestinians to agree to a ceasefire with Israel, and doing very little in the way of dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the territories. Still, administration officials are worried about Sharon’s recent comments on Qurei’s performance and the future of the road map.
Several members of the administration have suspected since the launching of the road map last summer that Sharon is not sincere in his stated intention to pursue the plan, and is actually attempting to undermine it, sources said. Administration officials are concerned that by talking about his plans for the day after the road map collapses, Sharon is actually attempting to hasten the plan’s demise.
On Wednesday Sharon was to deliver a major policy speech outlining unilateral measures that Israel might take if the Palestinian Authority continues to fail to implement its responsibilities under the road map. Two Cabinet ministers from Sharon’s own Likud party, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Education Minister Limor Livnat, have so far joined Sharon’s call for possible “unilateral steps” that would include dismantling or “moving” Jewish settlements in the territories.
Livnat explicitly tied her endorsement of moving settlements to a unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank. Sharon and Olmert have not endorsed annexation.
Shalom, who visited Washington in an effort to address administration concern over the barrage of Israeli statements on unilateral measures, told Powell, Rice and Cheney that Israel will not take any steps without prior coordination with the United States. “Coordination with the U.S. is important,” Shalom told reporters. “Our government is known to have good relations with the current administration. That is an asset for us and we will continue to guard it.”
The administration, however, does not seem fully satisfied by such promises. “They think that all steps taken should be agreed upon by the Palestinians and the international community,” said a senior Israeli official here, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A senior Israeli official, responding to U.S. concerns regarding unilateral steps, told Israeli reporters last week that any measures taken unilaterally will be of a security nature, not a political one. The administration is concerned, however, that such steps — including annexation — will create political facts on the ground.
According to senior Israeli officials and American diplomatic sources, the administration is particularly concerned that Israel will rush through the construction of controversial portions of the West Bank security fence.
The administration objects to the fence’s route in several areas, where it deeply penetrates into the West Bank. The White House strongly objects, however, to Qurei’s demand that Israel tear down the fence — all of it — as a precondition to negotiating with Sharon. Administration officials told Shalom this week that they want to see negotiations resume immediately, without any preconditions. Israel says it has agreed to start talks right away, but Sharon’s aides have been slow in taking steps to prepare for a meeting with Qurei, saying they are preoccupied with Sharon’s speech.
According to Israeli diplomatic sources, Sharon and his aides were concerned that the administration would try to initiate a compromise to appease Qurei, by suggesting that Israel freeze its construction of the fence. In defense of the fence, and perhaps to preempt any talk of stopping its construction, Shalom came to Washington this week armed with maps and statistical charts to prove its effectiveness as a security barrier. Shalom showed his interlocutors how the fence helped thwart a planned suicide attack at a school last week in the northern Israeli town of Yokne’am. He also said that terrorist attacks against Israeli communities along the 85-mile portion of the fence that has already been completed have significantly dropped in the past year. Between August of 2001 and August of 2002 there were 58 attacks in these areas. During the next one-year period, the number dropped to three.
This story "Saddam Nab Turns U.S. Focus Back To Mideast" was written by Ori Nir; With Reporting by Ha’aretz.