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THE MIDDLE EAST

Powell Will Ask Arabs to Help Steer Talks

Diplomacy: Washington bets that regional leaders will boost chances for success in Mideast.

April 06, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — To avoid the fatal flaw of the Camp David peace process under President Clinton, the Bush administration is mapping a strategy to bring in the Arab world as a junior partner in Washington's new diplomatic gamble in the Middle East, U.S. officials said Friday.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will reach out to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II and other Arab leaders in stops before he travels to Israel later next week, U.S. and Mideast officials said.

"The goal is to get the Arabs involved in everything Powell is going to do," said a Mideast diplomat who asked to remain anonymous.

The United States hopes to use Arab leverage to pressure Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to finally rein in extremists, and it hopes to use a recent Arab League peace initiative as an incentive to win Israel's compliance with a political settlement, U.S. officials say.

"There is a vital role for these Arab allies to play," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is playing host to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "Many of these nations represent traditions that have broken with the past in the Middle East. . . . They can play a very constructive role. And the president will work with those leaders who have already shown a great desire to achieve peace in the region."

The new tactic is in sharp contrast with the Clinton administration's strategy. During its last-ditch Camp David peace talks in 2000 between Arafat and Israel's then-prime minister, Ehud Barak, the United States didn't bring the Arab nations into the effort until the process was already on the verge of failure, Clinton administration officials now acknowledge.

When Arafat balked at the terms Barak had offered, Clinton telephoned Arab leaders and asked them to pressure the Palestinians to accept the package. But he didn't outline the terms of the deal, and the Arabs wouldn't sign on to the effort, which then collapsed.

"The game plan now is to bring them in from the start," the Mideast diplomat said.

In an interview after talks with Powell on Friday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said America's top diplomat is asking the Arab world to "have a vested interest" in the effort.

He said the Arab world had already contributed by offering an initiative to end the conflict and make peace with Israel. Now, "to translate this into a tangible mechanism, we must work with the United States, and we are willing to do our part," Muasher said.

But Washington is also asking the Arab world for cooperation in ending the violence, U.S. officials said Friday.

"We embraced the Arab League resolution, but we noticed that nobody at the summit in Beirut said a word about suicide bombings, and they have to do more too to stop the violence," a senior State Department official said.

The overall U.S. goal is to launch a process that blends a new cease-fire and security arrangement with a political process, rather than taking up the former and then the latter.

While the administration is reaching out to the Arab world, Bush is increasingly showing his anger at Arafat.

"We thought a couple of months ago that we had an agreement. The next thing we know, he's ordered a shipment of arms from Iran," Bush said in an interview with Britain's ITV network, according to a transcript released Friday. "Now, he's got a long way to go, and it starts with him proving that he can lead.

"He has let his people down. And there are others in the region who can lead."

Bush said he wasn't suggesting that Palestinians should look for a new leader, but added: "It's up to them. Far be it from the American president to get to decide who leads what country. I'm just telling you [that] since I've been the president, the man hasn't performed."

Bush made it clear that, although his foreign policy team has focused on the Mideast violence, it hasn't forgotten another pressing issue in the region: the security threat posed by Iraq.

"I made up my mind that Saddam [Hussein] needs to go. That's about all I'm willing to share with you," he said in the interview, which was conducted Thursday.

Powell is scheduled to leave late Sunday and begin his tour Monday in Morocco, where he will meet with Saudi Arabia's Abdullah and Moroccan King Mohammed VI.

The Saudi leader is critical to the U.S. effort because he crafted the proposal that the Arab League passed last week that offers "normal relations" with Israel in exchange for withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 Middle East War.

Saudi Arabia has been a strong financial supporter of Palestinian groups, mainly Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization but also the militant Islamic group Hamas, according to U.S. officials.

Powell will also go to Egypt and Jordan before arriving in Israel at week's end, Mideast envoys and U.S. officials said.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials privately expressed alarm that Israel had moved to heighten its incursion into the West Bank, where more than two dozen Palestinians were killed Friday in the bloodiest round of clashes since Israel began to reoccupy territory last week.

"It's pretty shocking," said the senior State Department official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Although Bush's speech Thursday on the Mideast crisis was notable in that it did not call for an immediate withdrawal, Powell on Friday called for a pullout of Israeli forces "without delay."

"The expectation is that the incursions will stop and a withdrawal process will begin as soon as possible or without delay--whichever formulation you would choose," Powell told reporters after his session with Muasher.

*

Wright reported from Washington and Chen from Crawford, Texas.

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