U.S. not involved in peace talks

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (JTA) – The United States’ role in peace negotiations has shifted from active participant to bystander, less than 48 hours after President Bush took the oath of office.

State Department officials downplayed the lack of American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian talks now underway in Taba, Egypt. Citing other examples of negotiations that occurred without U.S. mediation – such as the original Oslo breakthrough in 1993 – these officials insist that it does not represent a change in U.S. policy on the peace process.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday that U.S. officials are “keeping in close touch with the parties” in the Taba negotiations, though there is no U.S. official on the ground. Instead, U.S. ambassadors in the region are being briefed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority and are relaying the information to Washington.

“It’s important for the parties themselves to decide on and then take steps necessary to reach agreement for peace,” Boucher said. “The secretary has asked his ambassadors in the region to follow the situation closely, but we’re not participants in these particular talks.”

The development comes as the Palestinian Authority on Monday issued a broadside against the Clinton administration’s handling of the peace process, saying the United States had “increasingly identified” with Israeli positions and had relied on “constructive ambiguity” to craft interim agreements that denied Arab rights.

Many Israelis, in contrast, feel Clinton leaned too heavily on Israeli governments to make concessions without demanding corresponding Palestinian compromises. Yet the preponderance of Jews in leading positions on the Clinton team aroused deep suspicions in the Arab world, which regularly portrayed the American Jewish negotiators as Zionist sympathizers.

It is unclear exactly who will be the new administration’s point man for the peace process, as Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have yet to make a number of key diplomatic appointments. Matters also have been complicated by the resignation of Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, who shepherded the peace process from its inception seven years ago.

A State Department official close to the peace process said that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Walker is taking the lead in monitoring the peace process. Aaron Miller, who served as Ross’ deputy, is working under Walker, the official said.

That structure will continue until Powell or Bush designates new leaders for the peace process. It is widely expected that Ross’ position will not be filled, and that the shift of responsibility for the negotiations to the Near Eastern Affairs bureau will be permanent.

The official also said Powell has been working with the State Department’s Middle East team and has outlined objectives for the peace process. He would not say if they differ from those of the Clinton administration.

“We play different roles at different times,” the officials said.

The memo, signed by the Palestinian negotiating team, said the peace process had “become a goal in and of itself” and that negotiations had created “false impressions” about the chances of establishing a lasting peace.

Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said the memorandum was an attempt by the Palestinians to justify their actions during the Clinton administration.

“The Palestinians are very much aware that there is a large section” of American opinion “who are very concerned about the Palestinians not being able to pick up the ball that was given to them by Prime Minister Barak,” Regev said.

The State Department said it had no comment on the memo.

Boucher said the United States was not invited to participate in the Taba talks. In the past, the United States either was invited to participate in high-level talks or asked to participate.

Given the change of administration over the weekend, the parties may have been hesitant to ask for U.S. aid while the government is in flux, commentators suggested.

“There’s an awareness that we are in transition and the United States doesn’t have a team together,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We need to be cautious about extrapolating that this is what the next four years will look like.”

State Department officials emphasized that the United States is willing to play a role, if the parties request.

“This confirms, yet again, that it is the Israelis and the Palestinians that are pushing this forward, not the Americans,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.

Pipes said there is an inherent reluctance among presidents to get involved in the Middle East so soon into a new administration, but almost every president in the last 30 years eventually has gravitated toward the region.

“It will take Bush time to get up to speed,” Pipes said.

With many appointments still unfilled, career service officers have temporarily taken over leadership roles, while holdouts from the Clinton administration – like Walker – will remain until they are replaced.

In his welcoming remarks to State Department staffers, Powell said Monday that he is interested in relying on foreign service officers for senior positions, and said he hopes for some consistency in the office during the transition.

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