After Months of Keeping Its Distance, Bush Team Ups Mideast Involvement

The Bush administration intensified its involvement in the Middle East conflict, making plans to meet with Middle Eastern leaders and facilitating meetings in the region between Israel and the Palestinians.

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell spent part of their week discussing the troubled region. Administration officials spoke frequently with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and made plans to welcome two other Israeli leaders – Foreign Minister Shimon Peres early next week and President Moshe Katsav at the end of May.

“You don’t have to look far to see that this administration is engaged,” Powell said Wednesday after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “It takes a great deal of President Bush’s time.”

In a telephone conversation with Sharon on Thursday, Bush discussed “ways of securing peace in the region,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

In a hearing Thursday before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Powell said he and Bush are “fully engaged.”

“We’re doing it quietly, not with a billboard announcement every day,” Powell said. “But believe me, there’s no lack of engagement on the part of this administration.”

Powell said he had seen a bit of progress in the past week, “but it is as tough as I have ever seen it before in the region.”

In earlier interviews, he said the United States was operating on two tracks – holding conversations with Mideast leaders and supporting direct communication between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

American officials in the region have been participating in security talks between the two sides. State Department officials have defined their task as to “facilitate, monitor, and report back.”

The CIA is again involved in Israeli-Palestinian security talks. The CIA played a key role during the Clinton administration but was publicly removed from its mediating duties in the weeks after Bush took office.

The renewed U.S. participation contrasts with the rhetoric in the early days of the Bush administration, when officials called on Israel and the Palestinians to lead the peace process themselves.

In recent weeks, however, the White House has been inundated with requests from Arab leaders to play a more active role. In addition, the intensification of violence in recent weeks – including a brief Israeli incursion into the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip to stop mortar fire and an Israeli attack on Syrian radar in Lebanon after Hezbollah killed an Israeli soldier – showed Washington how quickly the situation can escalate if left unattended.

Visiting Washington this week, Lebanon’s Hariri pressed the White House to play “a more effective role to push forward the peace process in the region.”

“I believe that peace in the region is the responsibility of the United States, because it is the leader of the world,” he said.

Hariri said he was encouraged by his conversations with President Bush. While pushing for an increased U.S. role, he did not encourage the United States to take any specific steps, Hariri said.

Asked on CNN whether the United States should designate a special envoy for the Middle East, Hariri said the Bush administration should “try to achieve the peace in the ways and means they see it necessary.”

Even if Bush is carving out a role for his administration in Mideast affairs, it is not nearly as hands-on as the Clinton administration’s tactics.

“This administration is very cognizant of the kinds of things the United States has been able to do successfully in the past and the kinds of things it has not been able to do successfully,” said Jon Alterman of the U.S. Institute for Peace.

The Bush administration is seeking a “much more modest kind of role,” Alterman said. He noted that the diplomatic proposal currently being considered to break the Israeli-Palestinian logjam is called the Jordanian-Egyptian plan – indicating that other regional players are mediators, not just the United States.

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