News Analysis: Pressure on Shamir is Rising, but U.S. Policy is Unchanged

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir arrives in Washington Wednesday under increasing pressure from the Bush administration to provide new ideas for solving the problem of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

President Bush, who is to meet with Shamir on Thursday, was seen as increasing the heat on the prime minister when he said Monday that “Egypt and the United States share the goals of security for Israel, the end of the occupation and the achievement of Palestinian political rights.”

Although the United States has always called the West Bank and Gaza Strip “occupied territories” and urged the need for Israeli withdrawal in return for peace, this was the first time it had bluntly called for an “end to the occupation.”

But, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler denied Tuesday that Bush’s comment signaled a change in U.S. policy. “There is not a change in our policy,” she said.

And John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, told a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders Tuesday afternoon that Bush’s statement was not “an attempt to define a new position.

“It was a statement of what, I believe, he feels has been a consistent position of this country, predicated on a strong commitment to the security of the State of Israel,” he told the Orthodox Jewish Political Coalition at a White House briefing.

A senior administration official, who gave reporters an advance briefing Tuesday on the Shamir visit, said the Bush phrase should be seen in “the context of negotiations” which would have to happen before the occupation was ended.

SHAMIR KEEPING IDEAS SECRET

Shamir, who arrived in New York Tuesday, is keeping the new ideas that he pledged to bring to Washington a closely guarded secret. He refused to present his proposals to the Israeli Cabinet, though he did inform Minister Moshe Arens, Finance Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

But in an interview with The New York Times last Friday, Shamir said he would propose holding elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to allow the Palestinians to choose their own leaders for negotiations with Israel.

He stressed, however, that elections would be held only if the Arabs end their uprising in the territories.

The senior administration official who briefed reporters Tuesday said that he has read all the newspaper stories, but would not comment until Shamir has outlined his ideas to Bush.

“We want to listen to what Prime Minister Shamir has to say about how the peace process can move forward,” he said.

The Bush administration has appeared to be favorable to encouraging negotiations between Israel and Palestinians living in the territories.

There are indications that the administration has pressed the Palestine Liberation Organization to allow Palestinians in the territories to negotiate directly with Israeli authorities.

But visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Bush on Monday that the Palestinians would never accept elections under Israeli supervision. When Bush asked about supervision by someone else, Mubarak reportedly suggested the United Nations.

Mubarak also told Bush that PLO leader Yasir Arafat could not end the uprising in the territories, even if he wanted to do so.

The administration has been urging both Israel and the PLO to ease tension in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to create an environment that could lead to negotiations.

“We need to foster an environment more conducive to dialogue and negotiations, and we will be especially interested in the prime minister’s thoughts on these matters,” the official said Tuesday.

NO CHANGE ON PEACE CONFERENCE

In his talks with Mubarak, which included 30 minutes of private discussions, the president also did not indicate any change in the U.S. position toward an international conference, despite some press reports to the contrary.

Mubarak came to Washington after talks with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan and Arafat, in which he reportedly promised to press for an early scheduling of an international conference.

In his Rose Garden remarks, Mubarak agreed with Bush that a peace agreement could only be reached through direct negotiations, but said that should be “within the framework of the international peace conference.”

Bush would only say that “a properly structured international conference can find a useful role at the appropriate time.”

A senior administration official later said that this was a reaffirmation of the U.S. policy that there is “a lot of ground that has to be covered” before an international conference could be considered.

The Bush administration has followed the Reagan administration position that such a conference must facilitate direct negotiations, and not be a substitute for it, and that it not just be a forum for the exercise of propaganda.

But the major stumbling block has always been who participates in the conference.

“Israel is a close friend, a reliable partner and staunch ally,” the official stressed. “The U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and well-being is strong and unwavering. There should be no question about that.”

NEXT STORY