News Analysis: U.S. Faces Conflicting Pressures As It Debates Its Next Mideast Moves

In trying to formulate a long-term strategy in the Middle East, the Bush administration is facing conflicting pressures — and no shortage of advice.

Congress, American Jews, Arab states and Europe are all vying for the administration’s attention as it ponders a variety of options.

The administration opened a new chapter this week with active engagement to end the standoff in Ramallah, but many still complain that the White House lacks a clear policy and a vision as it contemplates its next moves.

“Continued indecisiveness and mixed messages is only making the situation worse,” one Democratic congressional staffer said.

Administration officials counter that they have a broad vision — bilateral Israeli-Palestinian talks that will lead to a two-state solution — but have simply run out of operational ways of achieving it.

The current strategy — to pursue the Tenet and Mitchell plans that provide frameworks for a cease-fire, confidence- building measures and a resumption of talks — has not worked.

Israel has been unwilling to start the two plans until there is an end to violence. And the Palestinians say they will not take the necessary steps until all Israeli troops withdraw from their areas.

Now several steps are being debated to move the process forward.

“This is not a game of Monopoly, where you roll the dice and just wait your turn to move around again,” said a State Department official.

Among the steps being considered, none of which are mutually exclusive, according to officials and analysts, are:

Push moderate Arab states, specifically Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to take on a larger role in the region, to pressure the Palestinians to crack down on terrorism and to begin to recognize Israel as a nation.

That could result in an international peace conference.

Both Israel and Saudis Arabia have raised this idea, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has insisted that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat not be allowed to participate, which means the conference could become a meeting of foreign ministers.

“The international peace conference idea is not dead,” according to a State Department official.

The idea was expected to be broached this week when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell meets with the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

Proponents of a peace conference say such a summit would move the parties from the military to the political front and give the Palestinians an incentive to do more.

But others dismiss the idea, saying it would be seen as a reward for terrorism.

“We have to have some modicum of trust to move forward like that,” the State Department official said. “Given the Palestinian record, it’s not hard to understand Israel’s reluctance.”

* High-level U.S. engagement, including the further use of U.S. mediators and monitors. Some say the type of activity involved in resolving the Ramallah standoff — that is, the use of American and British monitors to guard the six Palestinians wanted by Israel — will now be expected in other areas, either through mediators on the ground or through active U.S. engagement.

“I think there was a precedent set for the level of engagement involved to fix this impasse,” according to a State Department official. “The parties will continue to look to us for that same engagement.”

Support the idea of unilateral separation, a concept that is gaining popularity in Israel.

While the idea of separating Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip would accelerate the concept of a Palestinian state and bypass the Palestinian Authority leadership, some see it as a dead end because it does not address final- status issues that would be the outcome of a negotiated settlement.

Help rebuild Palestinian infrastructure and play a more significant role in fostering both economic and political revitalization. What this means, many say, is the need for a greater infusion of U.S. funds.

“Serious money needs to be used to rebuild Palestinian society, and that gives you an opportunity to rebuild new leadership,” an official with an American Jewish organization said.

With the overarching policy still being formulated, many players are seeking to influence the outcome.

The Arab world, specifically Saudi Arabia, has ratcheted up the pressure on the Bush administration.

In addition to outlining a peace proposal to Bush last week, Crown Prince Abdullah accused the White House of being too pro-Israel.

Saudi officials also hinted at, but later denied reports, that the Arab world could withhold oil or align itself with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein if policies did not change.

Pressure is also coming from the United Nations and European Union, which has consistently called for tougher action by the United States against Israel.

These forced are being countered by increasing pressure from the American Jewish community and its allies in Congress.

The Bush administration openly clashed with Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority whip, last week as he was pushing a resolution citing congressional support of Israel, calling for more aid to Israel and more pressure on Arafat.

Powell successfully persuaded Congress to postpone the resolution, saying it would hinder the administration’s Middle East efforts. It is not clear when – - or if — it would be revived.

Jewish activists had heralded the congressional action but weren’t optimistic that it would pass.

“We knew we were going to be up against a lot of opposition,” a Jewish organizational official said, acknowledging that the timing was a problem.

And talk of increased aid to Israel, once considered a possibility this year, is now considered dead.

But the Bush administration has been influenced by increased American Jewish activism, according to administration officials, who say there were impressed by the clout that was displayed at the mass rally for Israel at the Capitol earlier this month and at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

The Jewish message is that the United States and Israel are tied together in the international war on terrorism, and support from the United States is critical.

For the most part, American Jewish leaders have been happy with the level of support they have received from the Bush administration.

But the support has not been consistent. The inconsistency was demonstrated during last week’s visit by Abdullah, when Bush reiterated his strong opposition to the military action in the West Bank, saying “it’s now time to quit it altogether.”

Some are speculating that Bush has invited Sharon back to the White House next week in part to re-emphasize the U.S.-Israeli bond.

There is also the lingering question of Iraq as a factor in determining policy.

Some analysts continue to suggest that U.S. Mideast policy is being dictated by a desire to take military action in Iraq. But while the Iraqi situation — and the need to get Arab states on board — may be a factor, it has taken a back seat to the more urgent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I’m not sure I read this all as a long march to Baghdad,” a State Department official said of the interest in increased U.S. engagement. “There are enough good reasons to do this otherwise.”

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