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Israel, Palestinians Hope Bush Will Pursue Middle East Diplomacy

Israeli and Palestinian officials have congratulated President-elect George W. Bush on his victory and expressed hopes that his administration would remain involved in Middle East peace efforts.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday he was certain that Bush would continue to broaden the “courageous friendship and special relationship” between Israel and the United States.

Barak also said he was convinced Bush would follow in President Clinton’s path and play an important role in helping to achieve regional peace.

Palestinian officials said they hoped the new U.S. leader would adopt a policy of fairness and objectivity in the peace process. The Palestinian Authority has long complained that the Clinton administration was biased towards Israel.

Observers in Israel agreed that the Bush approach to the Middle East peace process would differ from his predecessor’s method.

“An end to the era of weekly phone calls,” is how one analysis in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz summarized the difference.

Whereas Clinton was deeply involved in setting U.S. policy on the Middle East, Bush is more likely to act as a final “arbitrator” over the activities of the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser and the CIA, according to senior Israeli sources quoted by Ha’aretz.

Bush can be expected to take a “less sentimental” approach toward the Middle East than his predecessor, said Uzi Arad, who was a security adviser to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On whether the changeover to a Republican presidency would affect U.S. aid to Israel, Likud Knesset member Moshe Arens, a former ambassador to the United States, said this was a matter determined more by Congress than the person sitting in the White House.

Observers have suggested that U.S.-Israeli relations are not likely to change drastically, considering that they are shaped by U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

The long-awaited outcome of the U.S. election prompted review of how U.S.- Israeli relations fared under Clinton and Barak, and what issues should be brought before the new American president.

Despite the close American involvement in the Middle East peace efforts, Barak’s term of office did not significantly improve U.S.-Israeli relations, according to Ha’aretz.

Most of the promises he sought from the United States, including upgrading relations to the level of strategic ally, were not realized, the paper said.

The paper attributed this to Barak’s having linked bilateral relations with the United States to the diplomatic process with Israel’s Arab neighbors, against the suggestions of his advisers.

This approach, Ha’aretz said, in effect gave former Syrian President Hafez Assad and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a veto right over bilateral ties.

Despite speculation this week of one last U.S. mediation effort before the end of Clinton’s presidency, prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement seemed dim in the face of the ongoing violence.

On Thursday, Hamas officials said a Palestinian killed by Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip was a member of the group’s military wing. The Israeli army said soldiers opened fire, killing Hani Abu Bakra and wounding two others, after one of the men drew a pistol at a checkpoint in southern Gaza.

Israel’s Army Radio described the shooting as a planned action against a group of militants who were believed to be on their way to carry out an attack. Palestinian officials have been accusing Israel of carrying out a campaign to assassinate militants.

The shooting occurred not far from the site of a nine-hour battle that erupted a day earlier near Gaza’s Khan Yunis refugee camp.

Witnesses said up to 1,000 Palestinian gunmen ran from all over the camp and elsewhere in Gaza to join Palestinian police in Wednesday’s battle. Four Palestinian policemen died in the fighting, described as one of the fiercest clashes since violence erupted in late September.

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