WASHINGTON, June 19 (JTA) — Trying to stake his place as the next Labor Party leader of Israel, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg met with U.S. leaders this week to drum up support both for his country and his personal viewpoints.
Burg met with Secretary of State Colin Powell Tuesday and reportedly delivered a message from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, saying the United States must make it clear to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that he must follow through on a week-old cease-fire agreement.
Powell reportedly told Burg that in the United States’ opinion, the cooling-off period described under American-brokered guidelines for a resumption of peace talks hadn’t begun because the cease-fire had not been implemented.
In his meetings with Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Burg reiterated the Israeli view that U.S. participation in the region must increase.
“We need the permanent presence of third parties to help both sides at this very delicate moment of getting to a family reunion,” Burg said at an event of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The next Labor Party leader will challenge Sharon in the next elections — now scheduled for 2003 — and Burg spoke like a candidate Tuesday, outlining the circumstances under which he believes Israel can negotiate with the Palestinians and accept an agreement.
After the two sides were unable to reach an agreement last summer — followed by nine months of violence — “resuming the talks will be hope after disappointment,” Burg said.
While a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians seems far off, Burg advocated an interim pact of “no war, no violence, but no warm friendship in the beginning” — a scenario similar to the detente that has kept the Egyptian front calm since the signing of the original Camp David Accords in 1979.
“It might last for such a long period, I would say go for it,” he said.
However, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are only able to take actions that are within the “national consensus” for each side, Burg said, so that a permanent peace agreement remains distant.
While Burg’s comments reflected standard Israeli rhetoric, they did deviate a bit from statements of other national leaders. For example, he said the issue of control of Jerusalem should not be broached in the negotiations.
Although he may face Sharon in a battle for prime minister one day, Burg praised Sharon’s restraint and his management of the current unity government.
“We have a government that nobody expected to behave the way it behaves,” Burg said.
Burg — who declined to serve in the unity government — said the government is secure as long as it has a restrained military policy and a permanent political initiative.
“Israel should never be coaxed into a situation where it says no to a peace initiative,” he said.
Burg’s visit comes a week before Sharon is scheduled to visit Washington, his second trip there since taking office as prime minister in March.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Sharon’s meeting with President Bush next Tuesday will be a continuation of the American mediation role, which climaxed with CIA Director George Tenet’s “working plan” cease-fire signed last week.
“The events in the Middle East are better than they were following Director Tenet’s visit to the Middle East, where he was able to work out the” cease-fire, Fleischer said. “But the events remain fragile, and that is why this administration is going to remain actively engaged in trying to build the confidence-building measures between the parties in the Middle East.”
Sharon’s visit to Washington was arranged after the prime minister announced he would be in New York for several events.
Fleischer on Tuesday defended the administration’s decision to postpone moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for another six months. The announcement contradicted a campaign promise Bush made to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, when he said the move would be one of his first acts as president.
“Events in the Middle East have certainly changed,” Fleischer said. “And it was the president’s considered judgment that due to national security reasons and reasons dealing with events on the ground in the Middle East, that process would have to await an additional six months.
“It is something the president remains committed to, but that is the reality of the events on the ground,” he said.