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Saddam Capture Opens Window for Mideast Peace, U.S. Officials Say

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Saddam Hussein’s capture creates new opportunities for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israeli and U.S. officials agree — and the Bush administration already is looking for results.

In recent meetings with top U.S. officials, Israeli officials said, the message was clear: Now is the time for Israel to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

The United States wants Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Ahmed Qurei, to meet immediately “with no preconditions,” according to a senior Israeli official.

A senior adviser to Sharon said Saddam’s capture would end speculation among Palestinians that the Bush administration had been cowed by Iraqi insurgents and was pulling back from involvement in the Middle East.

“In the last few weeks, Abu Ala and others have been biding time, not meeting with Sharon,” Zalman Shoval said, using Qurei’s nom de guerre. “They felt that time was on their side. Maybe they were thinking America would not stay in Iraq and would lose interest in the region. What happened with Saddam sends the opposite view.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he told U.S. officials that Israel was ready for a Sharon-Qurei summit and blamed Qurei for dithering by insisting that Israel first make good-faith concessions to the Palestinians.

Shalom suggested that Qurei was deferring to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who has been frozen out of the peace process by Israel and the United States because of his support for terrorism.

“We feel Abu Ala is trying to appease Arafat more than necessary,” said Shalom, who met Monday with Vice President Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser. Shalom was the first foreign official to visit the White House after the announcement of Saddam’s capture.

He also met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell last Friday.

Shalom said Israel appreciated the value of the cease-fire Qurei is trying to negotiate with Palestinian terrorist groups, but only if it is a step toward dismantling those groups, as required by the “road map” peace plan.

He also said the capture of Saddam is a warning to states that support terrorism, such as Syria or Iran.

Shoval said the capture would nudge the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward because it underscored U.S. determination to stay the course in the region.

“The military victory in Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein sends a strong message that America will not tolerate terror and is determined to go ahead with democratization,” he said. “This will have an impact on the Palestinian leadership in terms of its determination to have peace talks with Israel and have an agreement based on compromise.”

Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said U.S. success will lead to pressure being exerted on all parties in the region, including Israel.

“Bush is going to be emboldened. The capture of Saddam changes the atmosphere so he could do something incredibly bold,” she said, referring to the president.

All eyes now are on Sharon, she said, citing a speech the prime minister was due to give at an Israeli national security conference Thursday in which he is expected to outline what Israel is ready to do for peace.

“Obviously, the Israelis are the powerful party, and they could change the atmosphere overnight and regain the moral authority they have lost,” Kipper said. “It requires bold courageous leadership, of which Sharon is perfectly capable.”

Some reports have suggested Sharon might use his speech to outline unilateral steps Israel could take if the Palestinians don’t make peace soon. Such steps could include withdrawals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to defensible borders Israel sets for itself.

A U.S. official said Shalom was told that unilateral steps that adhered to the road map’s first phase — such as a settlement freeze and dismantling of illegal outposts — would be welcome.

On the other hand, the official said, the United Steps opposes any unilateral action that prejudices the road map’s second phase, which includes setting borders. Such steps should be taken only in consultation with the Palestinians and the international community, the official said.

Shalom said Israel could not rule out such actions if the Palestinians do not display real partnership. But he reassured Powell, Cheney and Rice that Israel would take such action only in coordination with the United States.

“We will do whatever we can to preserve good relations” with the United States, Shalom said.

Israeli officials clearly were relieved that the Americans had returned to the road map — the U.S.-led initiative that envisions an immediate end to violence and a Palestinian state by 2005 — after flirting with unofficial peace proposals that the Israeli government found far less favorable.

Bush said last week that the road map still is the preferred route, and he emphasized that the priority now is on ending Palestinian terrorism.

“Step one is for all parties to fight off terror, to stop the few from destroying the hopes of the many,” Bush said Dec. 12. “Step two is for the Palestinians to find leadership that is willing to reject the tired old policy of the past and lead the Palestinian people to not only a democratic state, but a peaceful solution of differences.”

But Bush and his aides also have made clear that Israel needs to take positive steps as well.

Israel “must be mindful that they don’t make decisions that make it hard to create a Palestinian state,” Bush said. “It’s in Israel’s interest there be a Palestinian state.”

A senior U.S. envoy to the region last week blamed the Palestinians for the lack of progress toward peace but said Israel also was not doing enough to help Qurei succeed.

“The Israeli government has done too little for far too long to translate its repeatedly stated commitment to facilitate Palestinian reform into reality,” said David Satterfield, a deputy assistant secretary of state.

It was clear that Israel got the message, and Shalom arrived in Washington armed with an outline of measures Israel intends to take to alleviate Palestinian suffering.

In the short term, Israel is easing freedom of movement and handing out more Israeli work permits to Palestinian laborers, Shalom said. In the last month, Israel also has removed 10 West Bank roadblocks, he said.

In the longer term, Israel is ready to discuss establishing new industrial zones and tourism projects, according to Shalom.

“The Israeli initiative was warmly welcomed by the United States,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Rhonda Shore said.

A meeting Monday among Israelis, Palestinians, representatives of European donor nations and Satterfield to discuss Shalom’s ideas was a success, Shore said.

“Well-crafted, detailed presentations resulted in frank dialogue on increasing economic assistance and improving humanitarian conditions,” she said. “We hope that both parties now focus on concrete steps.”

The next meeting is set for Jan. 5.

Bush administration officials also have been upset that Sharon has allowed illegal West Bank settlement outposts to remain in place, in violation of the road map. Shalom said he assured the Americans that Sharon has given instructions to remove the outposts.

On another area of contention, the security barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, Shalom said he insisted to U.S. officials that the fence is crucial to stopping terrorists from entering Israel. He presented a map to the Americans showing how the fence recently forced a pair of would-be suicide bombers to take a longer route to their target in northern Israel. The delay led to their capture.

A former top Israeli general also was in Washington this week making the case that the fence is key to creating optimal conditions for peace.

Uzi Dayan, formerly an army deputy chief of staff and a national security adviser, said he would tell officials in Congress, the White House and the State Department that the barrier has broad support in Israel.

“If there was already a fence, security would have been much better, we would have had a much better chance for political progress,” said Dayan, who is here on behalf of the Public Council for Building the Security Fence, a nonpartisan group. “I don’t see any other way to fight terrorism effectively and for progress toward coexistence with Palestinians.”

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