News Analysis: Shamir Visit to U.S. Presents Major Opportunities and Risks

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has an opportunity to seize the initiative in the Middle East peace process when he comes to Washington on Wednesday for two days of talks with the Bush administration.

But his visit also has the potential to ignite new strains between the United States and Israel because of the high expectations that have been created by both countries about the “new ideas” Shamir is bringing with him.

Shamir’s opportunity to influence the course of the peace process is heightened by the fact that the Bush administration has not formulated a policy on the Middle East in the more than two months it has been in office.

U.S. policy may become clear after Bush meets with Shamir and two Arabs leaders: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday and King Hussein of Jordan on April 19, the eve of Passover. The Hussein meeting was pushed up from the original date of May 2, because of scheduling technicalities.

Bush met briefly with Hussein and Mubarak in February, when all three attended the funeral of Japanese Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo. Bush also met with Israeli President Chaim Herzog in Tokyo and with Moshe Arens when the Israeli foreign minister visited Washington last month to lay the groundwork for the Shamir visit.

He is scheduled to meet the Israeli premier on Thursday, after Shamir holds talks with Secretary of State James Baker on Wednesday.

“I think what you will see is a very good give-and-take with all the visitors about how they look at the peace process, how we look at the peace process,” a senior administration official said Friday, in briefing reporters.

He said the three visits will “help define perhaps the evolution of our thinking on what we do next.”

The official said that there is a realization by all the parties “that the status quo is not a tenable position.”

ELECTIONS IN THE TERRITORIES

Mubarak, who arrived in Washington on Saturday night, is expected to discuss his recent talks with Hussein and Yasir Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He also is expected to report on Saudi Arabian King Fahd’s recent visit to Cairo — the first since the signing of the Camp David accords in September 1978.

As for the Shamir visit, expectations are running high within the Bush administration that the premier will offer concrete proposals to advance peace.

Secretary of State Baker said, in an interview with The New York Times last week, that the administration is “very anxious that the prime minister bring some new ideas for the peace process.”

Shamir said in Jerusalem last week that was exactly what he plans to do.

But in an interview published in the Times on Friday, the premier said “the main focus is not on new ideas,” but on “ideas that are realistic and reasonable.”

He confirmed that he will propose elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in which the Palestinians would choose their own leaders for negotiations with Israel.

But the PLO has rejected elections while the territories are under Israeli control. The Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have so far showed no indication that they would defy the PLO on this or anything else.

The Bush administration in its talks with the PLO is apparently trying to persuade the PLO to allow the residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to represent the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel. But there is no indication that it has made any headway in this effort.

AGAINST TALKS WITH PLO

Shamir is expected to voice once again Israel’s opposition to the U.S. dialogue with the PLO, as well as to reiterate that Israel will never negotiate with the PLO.

At a recent meeting in his office with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Baker said he would not press Israel to talk with the PLO.

But he has said publicly that Israel may have to consider such talks someday, if this is the only way to get negotiations started.

Mubarak is expected to urge that Israel agree to talks with the PLO. When he met in Cairo recently with Science and Development Minister Ezer Weizman of Labor, who supports such talks, the Egyptian president offered to host Israeli-PLO talks in Cairo.

Mubarak and Hussein both are expected to urge the Bush administration to support an international conference for peace negotiations that would include the PLO. Shamir is adamantly opposed to such a conference.

The Bush administration also has appeared cool to such an international conference unless it is guaranteed to bring about direct negotiations.

The administration appears to favor the gradual approach sought by Israel in which there would be some sort of self-rule by the Palestinians before negotiations would be held on the final status of the administered territories.

That is basically the formula for achieving a peace settlement outlined by the Camp David accords.

“We and the Egyptians have seen eye-to-eye on the main principles of the peace process,” the administration official said Friday.

VIOLENCE MUST END

He said this was based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and the principles of “territory for peace, security for all states in the region and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”

Baker has urged Israel and the PLO to ease tensions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a way to create an environment that could lead to negotiations. Arafat has rejected ending the intifada.

In his interview with The New York Times, Shamir stressed that elections could not be held in the territories as long as the Palestinians continue their violence.

The administration official said that while the peace process will be the main item in the meetings with Mubarak, a major topic also will be U.S. assistance for the “serious economic challenges” faced by Egypt. He said Mubarak is committed to economic reforms.

Egypt receives $1.3 billion in military aid and $815 million in economic aid, all of it grants from the United States.

NEXT STORY