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Shift of Focus to Kashmir Conflict Gives Quiet Opening in Middle East

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Other international stories may have moved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the front pages of American newspapers, but the Bush administration continues preparing for its next diplomatic steps in the Middle East.

The threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan has pushed that region into the headlines and has resulted in a new American effort to settle the conflict over the disputed region of Kashmir. Both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage are heading to South Asia hoping to prevent hostilities between two countries with nuclear capabilities from escalating into a war.

Yet the shift of focus won’t last long: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will meet with Bush this weekend, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will visit early next week.

The visits come as the administration is working to pressure the Palestinian Authority toward comprehensive reforms and is trying to arrange an international conference on Middle East peace. There also are discussions in Washington about laying out a timeline toward a Palestinian state.

Officials working toward Middle East peace have been enjoying a week where quiet diplomacy has replaced hourly bantering on television and constant progress checks.

“You can get some real work done when people aren’t looking at you every minute, seeking results,” one American Jewish official said of American efforts.

That’s a change from the pattern of recent weeks, when newspapers pondered daily about the future of the planned peace conference and what the United States could accomplish. Speculation also grew about the future of P.A. President Yasser Arafat.

CIA Director George Tenet and the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, William Burns, both have arrived in the Middle East in the past week, but the results of their meetings largely have gone unreported as focus has shifted to South Asia.

“When you have serious discussions going on now, it doesn’t hurt for the parties to have a little bit of leeway,” a State Department official said.

Ironically, the similarities between the two hot spots — both are disputes over land that involve terrorism — mean that many of the negotiating tools used in the Middle East conflict will be applied to the Kashmir dispute.

Analysts believe both conflicts need to be managed, even if they can’t be conclusively settled right now.

As it does with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the United States will need to look at the international community’s potential role in defusing the Kashmir crisis, as well as the importance of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism initiatives.

“The same fundamentals exist in both conflicts — extremists looking to attack Indian civilians and some form of complicity by some leaders of Pakistan,” an American Jewish official said, making parallels between the Pakistani and Palestinian sides.

Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the dispute over Kashmir involves two states with large armies and nuclear weapons.

There has been a growing feeling in the international affairs community that the international war on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have hijacked the Bush administration’s foreign policy, and that the brewing conflict between India and Pakistan had been ignored.

The State Department and the White House now are playing catch-up, designating Armitage as the key player on the India-Pakistan conflict and giving South Asia the amount of time and energy that normally is reserved for the Middle East.

The lack of media focus on the Middle East has made it easier for Burns and Tenet to have productive meetings in the region on the future of the Palestinian Authority.

“Arafat is always more likely to comply when people aren’t paying attention,” the State Department official said.

But analysts say there is no chance that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be ignored for any length of time.

“It’s not one at the expense of the other,” an Israeli official in Washington said. “We can’t expect the American administration only to deal with us, that would be selfish.”

The visits of Mubarak and Sharon are expected to heighten attention to the prospects of an international conference on the Middle East conflict, now being proposed for July.

The White House’s announcement Monday that Sharon would visit Washington caught many by surprise. Sharon met with Bush at the White House only a month ago, though their talks were cut short when a Palestinian suicide bomber attacked an Israeli pool hall.

“The American administration is going through a process where they are discussing what are the next steps to be taken,” an Israeli official in Washington said. “It is very important that we put forward our concerns and our ideas.”

The suicide bombing in Rishon also caused Sharon to cancel meetings with members of Congress, which will be a priority next week.

“We’re going to try to do what we couldn’t do last time,” the official said.

It is also rare for Mubarak, who will spend the weekend at the president’s Camp David retreat, to make a second trip to the United States this year.

Mubarak told The New York Times on Tuesday that he would present a more detailed peace plan than the one Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah offered earlier this year, and would urge the White House to support the immediate declaration of a Palestinian state.

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