Bush Reviewing Mideast Strategy in Wake of Baker’s Latest Trip

President Bush plans to make a major policy address on the Middle East once he decides what the next step will be in the U.S. effort to bring about peace talks between Israel and the Arabs, the White House said this week.

But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater indicated that no decision has been made yet on a new administration proposal following the completion last week of Secretary of State James Baker’s fourth trip to the Middle East since the end of the Persian Gulf War.

“We don’t have a venue yet” for a speech on the Middle East, Fitzwater said. But “policy drives the venue,” he said, and “when we are ready, we will find one.”

After being briefed Friday by Baker on his latest Middle East trip, Bush told reporters there is “real cause for optimism, and we will continue to work this process.”

Baker will make a fifth trip to the region “if there’s reason to go back,” the president said.

Bush said he believes that the “window of opportunity” created in the area by the Gulf war remains open. “I think the credibility of the United States is higher in the Middle East than it has ever been. I think it’s still there,” he said.

But the president refused to give any details. “A lot of these things have to be quiet when you are talking about diplomacy,” he said. “The way to solve this conundrum is not to get these parties positioned by public statements.”

Following Baker’s latest trip, the major problem seems to be Syria’s insistence that a peace conference must be under U.N. auspices.

Jerusalem sees the United Nations as biased toward Israel and wants no U.N. presence. Israel believes that any conference that goes beyond a ceremonial prelude to direct talks will result in all the countries ganging up on Jerusalem.

U.S. NOT GIVING UP YET

The administration is expected to take about two weeks of continued discussion with the Arabs and Israelis before reaching a decision on the next step.

In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir revealed that one proposal under consideration is the convening of a summit in Washington. But the State Department refused to confirm this Monday.

Another idea is to forget about Syria and go back to the pre-Gulf aim of involving only Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians. But Jordan would not likely participate without Syria’s approval.

This may be one of the reasons King Hussein met Saturday in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad, who met the following day with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Bush spoke last week with both Hussein and Mubarak before their trips to Damascus.

Even before Baker went to the Middle East, a senior White House official told a group of reporters that the Bush administration would not give up on trying to bring about a Middle East peace settlement.

If the current effort to bring about a peace conference does not work, “we will not give up,” the official said. “We will do something else.”

But he stressed there is “zero interest in having diplomacy for the sake of it. We are interested in results.”

NEXT STORY