WASHINGTON — Now that the Israeli election is over, the Bush administration will soon launch its version of Middle East diplomacy confronted by a complex set of obstacles, the least of which may be Israel's choice of hard-liner Ariel Sharon as its prime minister.
President Bush faces a triangle of escalating challenges--on the Mideast peace process, Iraq and Libya--that are increasingly intertwined. Progress on one will require progress on all three, according to senior U.S. officials and Mideast experts.
"A step-by-step, Kissinger-like approach is not the answer," warned Augustus Richard Norton, a Boston University political scientist. "We need systematically to think about all three issues as related problems. If we don't, we're going to find ourselves isolated from many of our allies--and in a situation where we jeopardize our support in critical quarters of the Mideast and our ability to make peace."
The U.S. will come face to face with these problems when Colin L. Powell embarks on his first overseas trip as secretary of State later this month to the Middle East and Europe, an itinerary he announced Tuesday after talks with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
Despite widespread predictions that the United States can't avoid being drawn into the Arab-Israeli conflict, Powell indicated that the new administration is in no hurry to get deeply embroiled, as the Clinton administration was up until its last days. Powell said the postelection period is instead "a time to be patient" as the winner forms a new government.
"Jawboning is pretty much all we can do right now," he said.
Powell called on the various players in the region to recognize the "absolute importance [of] controlling the passions" and "to refrain from any acts that would lead to violence."
Although Powell promised that the United States will not be "standoffish," he made clear that he and Bush aren't willing to get involved in the conflict unless all sides are prepared to ensure the calm necessary for diplomacy.
"At the end of the day," he said, Israel and the Palestinians "have to want peace more than we may want them to have peace. At the end of the day, they have to come together and negotiate with each other."
"To the extent they find American facilitation, American presence, American leadership useful toward that end, then I think we should provide it," Powell said.
Bush called Sharon late Tuesday to say he looks forward to working with him, "especially with regard to advancing peace and stability in the region," according to a statement issued by the White House.
At his news conference, however, Powell indicated that the new administration wants to help broker a settlement not just through negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians. "We want to make sure that the quest for peace is seen in a broad regional context, so that the quest doesn't stand alone in and of itself," he said.
But the broader regional context is exactly where the new administration may find its efforts checked, Mideast analysts predict.
Since Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords in 1993, the front-line Arab states have been willing to engage with the United States on a range of traditionally sensitive issues because Washington has facilitated negotiations with Israel to settle half a century of disputes with the Arab world.
The peace process, rocky as it has been at times, provided the cornerstone for a tentative but promising three-way partnership.
But the events of the past four months--beginning with Sharon's controversial visit to a disputed holy site in Jerusalem's Old City, an act that some people say triggered a bloody new uprising by Palestinians, and culminating with his election Tuesday--have seriously undermined that fragile working relationship.
This volatile period has also coincided with an overwhelming demand from most of the Arab world to ease decade-long sanctions against Iraq and to embrace Libya now that the trial of two intelligence agents for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 has ended with the conviction of one of them.
Over the past two weeks, however, the new U.S. administration has pledged that it intends to maintain sanctions on Iraq until it complies with the U.N. resolution mandating the surrender of its weapons of mass destruction.
Despite Europe's rapprochement with Libya, the White House has also demanded that the regime of Col. Moammar Kadafi pay reparations and accept full responsibility for the Pan Am attack before Washington agrees to the lifting of U.N. sanctions.
Both positions may exacerbate already strained U.S. relations with even close allies. They are also likely to seriously erode any American effort to get Arabs to accept Sharon, a hawk who has already disavowed the compromises offered by defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Mideast experts say.