WASHINGTON, April 19 (JTA) — Contrary to its earlier declarations, the Bush administration is considering appointing a special Middle East envoy in the State Department, to take some of the pressure off Secretary of State Colin Powell.
There is a growing feeling within the State Department that Powell has been spending too much time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and needs a point person to handle the issue directly.
The conflict “is not his personal interest,” an Israeli official said of Powell. “He would like to have someone in his office who can address these issues when something comes up.”
The position of Mideast envoy was eliminated when Dennis Ross left the State Department with the Clinton administration in January.
Arab leaders are believed to favor the appointment of a new envoy — seeing it as an indication of more intensive White House involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict — and have told Bush administration officials as much.
Bush has said he will take a far less hands-on approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict than did President Clinton. State Department officials therefore are concerned that naming an envoy indeed would create the impression of increased involvement, and may try to make statements clarifying Bush’s continued low-key role before announcing any nomination.
Some officials have been designated for Middle East posts within the State Department but have not yet taken office. Most department staff in Washington and Middle East capitals therefore are hold-overs from the Clinton administration.
Once Bush’s other Middle East appointees take office and divide the workload, it should become clearer whether a special envoy is needed. The appointment therefore is not considered imminent.
Speculation about the appointment has focused on Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria. Djerejian is closely associated with former Secretary of State James Baker, and now heads Baker’s Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
Djerejian is respected by both Arabs and Israelis and would bring a balanced approach, Jewish leaders said, in keeping with the Bush administration’s stated policies toward the Middle East. Djerejian’s Syria experience could be particularly useful, as the administration is cognizant of concerns in Syria and other Arab countries that decade- old sanctions harm the Iraqi population.
Jewish leaders say Djerejian could soothe tensions between Israel and Syria and ease Syrian resistance to America’s Iraq policy.
In a speech to the Foreign Press Center last week, Djerejian said the time may have come for the U.S. to reassess its Mideast policy. History shows that when presidents make decisive leadership decisions, significant developments in the region have followed, he said.
The administration should “structure the next phase of the negotiations along these lines in a more coherent and realistic regional framework which accommodates the interests of both sides and does not ignore popular opinion in both the Arab countries and Israel,” Djerejian told the press center.
“At the end of the day, if there is to be peace in the Middle East, a viable and independent” Palestinian “state will have to emerge, living next to Israel in peace,” he said. “The question is, how many more people have to die? How much longer does the tragedy have to continue before the parties can get back to the ultimate point to restart the negotiations?”
Djerejian’s office at Rice University said he would not comment on the possible nomination.
The position of Mideast envoy was closed as part of a review of all such offices when Powell took over the State Department. Powell has said he prefers to use career foreign service officers rather than appointees from think- tanks and similar agencies, and so far the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau has been handling Middle Eastern issues for the Bush administration.
A State Department spokesman said the agency is constantly reviewing how the Middle East situation can be handled internally, and that envoys play a useful role. He would not comment on speculation about an imminent appointment.
A National Security Council spokesman said he had no information about plans to revive the envoy position.