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With Eye on Iraq, Washington Applauds Olmert Initiative

The sudden steps toward a thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations this week have raised hopes in the Bush administration of a renewed Middle East peace process — and, some sources say, boosted chances of cooperation by moderate Arab countries in American efforts to stabilize Iraq.

Sources close to the administration say that Washington helped to broker this week’s cease-fire, in which Israeli forces agreed to stop their attacks in northern Gaza in return for a deployment of Palestinian Authority forces to stop rocket attacks against Israeli towns. The cease-fire agreement was followed by a conciliatory speech by Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in which he called on Palestinians to end violence and negotiate with Israel for statehood, offering a potential evacuation of West Bank settlements.

According to Israeli and American sources, the Gaza cease-fire — if sustained — will be the basis for a broader process that will include a similar cease-fire in the West Bank, followed by a prisoner swap in which Israel will release Hamas members and other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. If these efforts bear fruit, American sources say, the administration will seek to arrange a summit meeting between Olmert and P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas to explore options for restarting the peace process.

The administration allowed itself considerable optimism this week following the Gaza cease-fire and Olmert’s speech, in which the prime minister restated his pre-election offer of a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank. “I believe that many of you yearn for a new chapter that we can open together in the bloody history of our relations,” Olmert said in his speech, addressed to the Palestinians. “We, Israel, will agree to the evacuation of many territories and communities we have created.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack praised Olmert’s speech, calling it “certainly promising.” He added that the Israeli leader “has offered up a political horizon to the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Olmert after his speech to congratulate him and to discuss her visit to the region. The cease-fire and Olmert’s peace offers smoothed the way for Rice in advance of her meeting this week with Abbas in Jericho. A meeting with Olmert in Jerusalem has been confirmed for Thursday.

Sources close to the administration stressed that although Rice and President Bush see the latest developments as positive, it is crucial not to overestimate the events’ importance.

The United States remains disappointed by Abbas’s slow progress in forming a Palestinian unity government, which is seen as a critical precondition to any further American engagement in the peace process.

One source described talk of an Olmert-Abbas summit as “premature” before the prisoner swap is complete and a new Palestinian government is formed.

In a closed-door briefing before the cease-fire was agreed upon, senior State Department officials described the upcoming weeks as important. They said that the upcoming cease-fire is only one step on the way to a renewal of more significant peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

While negotiations leading up to the Gaza cease-fire were conducted mainly between aides to Olmert and Abbas, American officials also took part, sources here emphasized. Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State David Welch shuttled among Washington, Ramallah and Jerusalem during the talks. Their efforts were described as highlighting the importance the administration attaches to reaching an agreement that will move the sides toward a prisoner swap and possible peace talks.

Israeli officials maintain, however, that the United States played a limited role in brokering the cease-fire and in pushing Olmert to return to his moderate platform.

In the Israeli view, the developments represent a convergence of three factors. One is Olmert’s need for a new agenda in light of his low approval rating. The second is the Palestinians’ desire to ease the military, diplomatic and economic pressure they are under. The third is America’s need to show progress on the Israeli-Palestinian path in order to gain support from regional partners in its attempt to stabilize Iraq. “The Americans can push until they are blue in the face, but nothing can move before all the conditions are ripe,” one Israeli official said.

Efforts to develop a new exit strategy in Iraq, based on the cooperation of moderate Arab countries, are seen as the root of the American drive to restore momentum on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Diplomatic sources briefed on the November 25 talks between Saudi King Abdullah and Vice President Dick Cheney said that the issue was raised in this meeting, as it had been in many other talks American officials have held in recent months with leaders of other Gulf countries, Jordan and Egypt.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, in an ABC News interview November 26, drew a direct link between the situation in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying he gives priority to dealing with this conflict. “The emotional impact that the Israeli-Palestinian problem has on the ground can be translated to the insecurity and the frustrations throughout the Middle East and the Arab world,” the Jordanian monarch said.

While diplomatic sources describe repeatedly the main motive for America’s renewed interest in the Israeli-Palestinian ongoing violence as eagerness to have moderate Arab countries pressure Iraqi Sunnis into backing the government of Nuri al-Maliki, the administration formally maintains there is no linkage between the two. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said this week that the United States is interested in both achieving stability in Iraq and reaching a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that the two goals are pursued “separately and apart.” Also viewed separately is the goal of stabilizing Lebanon’s democracy, a third trouble spot cited by the Jordanian king. “I don’t think these are linked in some kind of game,” Hadley said.

The only senior figure in the administration known to have acknowledged a linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the larger problems of the region, State Department counselor Philip Zelikow, resigned this week, due to what some administration sources described as frustration with the direction of American foreign policy. This past September, Zelikow said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that easing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a “sine qua non” to securing cooperation from moderate Arab countries on broader regional issues.

The State Department leadership publicly rejected Zelikow’s ideas at the time, but numerous sources close to the administration agreed this week that the notion of linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation in Iraq, and to a certain extent in Iran, as well, is now emerging as the prevailing view guiding America’s Middle East policy.

Yet all observers stressed that the progress made this week in the region is only a small first step. “The agenda of the Bush administration on this issue is ‘think small.’ They do not have a broader process in mind,” said Edward Abington, a former American consul general in Jerusalem and now a Washington lobbyist for the P.A. “All we have is a Gaza cease-fire and Olmert’s speech — not much more. People have been down this road already.”

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