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Risk Seen in Mideast as White House Sidelines Issue

August 04, 2004|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On what may well be his last swing through the Middle East before the November elections, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Cairo, Kuwait City, Baghdad and the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh.

Conspicuously absent from his itinerary last week were Jerusalem and the West Bank, an indication that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has fallen far down the administration's list of foreign policy priorities.

Little more than a year after President Bush vowed to pursue a resolution to that conflict "to the bitter end," Powell's decision to steer clear of Jerusalem and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority government, reflects a new political reality. With national elections looming in the U.S. and Israelis and Palestinians embroiled in their own political crises, the administration is unwilling to spend any more political capital on the issue.

"It's an election year," said a State Department official who deals with the region, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So I don't know that we're going to do a hell of a lot. I don't see anyone really rocking the boat. If anything, we will keep the status quo."

But regional observers say that the calculation that peacemaking can wait until after Americans go to the polls is not without risk. As the White House focuses on battling insurgents in Iraq and the Democrats at home, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pushing ahead with his plan to pull troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip, and chaos is spreading across the Palestinian territories, where armed militants are challenging Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Without U.S. leadership, the administration's critics argue, Israel's impending pullout could trigger a new explosion of violence among the Palestinians they leave behind.

"The process is in trouble," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, "because of the chaos on the Palestinian side, because Sharon's got political difficulties at home

"The absence of U.S. leadership is ... helping to ensure that instead of there being an orderly transfer, we will see chaos and warlordism in the wake of Israel's withdrawal."

Indyk and Dennis Ross, who served as a Middle East envoy under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said the administration had essentially ceded leadership as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians to Egypt and left it to the Egyptians to push the Palestinian Authority to reform its security forces.

In "The Missing Peace," a recently published memoir of his years negotiating with Israelis and Palestinians, Ross warned that if Israel was allowed to simply withdraw from Gaza, "it could result in Hamas gaining control over Gaza and chaos in the West Bank," referring to a militant Islamic organization.

Only the United States, Ross wrote, "has the wherewithal" to manage Israel's pullback, and it is abdicating that responsibility.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, on Tuesday urged the administration to stay "actively involved in moving the peace process and negotiations forward toward a two-state solution and to support the unilateral withdrawal plan" as well as Israel's construction of a barrier separating the West Bank from pre-1967 Israel.

In a letter to Powell, Saperstein -- whose group includes more than 900 reform congregations across North America -- faulted recent congressional resolutions endorsing Sharon's unilateral withdrawal plan for failing to "recognize the need for withdrawal to be directly linked to a return to the negotiating table" and neglecting to "address the troubling humanitarian conditions of the Palestinians."

Powell and other administration officials insist that they are still searching for ways to help ensure that Sharon carries through with the withdrawal and that the Palestinians can fill the power vacuum when Israel withdraws after the first of the year.

When Powell was drawing up his itinerary, another State Department official said, Israel and the Palestinian territories were quickly ruled out.

"There was not much to do," said the official, who also asked not to be named. "There was nothing that he could bring to the table that would move things forward in a way that was worth his going there."

During his travels, Powell repeated his assertion that the Palestinian Authority's failure to reform its security services and rein in militants was to blame for the lack of progress.

If Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei is able to impose his authority over the security forces, Powell told reporters traveling with him last week, "then I think we all have something to work with."

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