Bush Reaches out to Europe, Seeking Its Aid in the Middle East

Signifying a change from President Bush’s first term, top foreign policy officials in the Bush administration are aggressively courting European nations to play a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At the same time, JTA has learned, the officials are actively reaching out to American Jewish officials to assure them that President Bush’s new proactive posture in the Middle East will not diminish his closeness to Israel.

President Bush has made it clear that he sees a new opportunity to push for peace now that he has weathered re-election and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has passed from the scene.

Bush wants Palestinian Authority elections, slated for Jan. 9, to go smoothly, and is nudging the sides back toward direct talks.

Getting Europe on board would pay dividends because the Europeans are believed to be capable of influencing the Palestinians. Additionally, Bush, who plans a tour of European capitals in February, is seeking European help in pulling Iraq back from the brink of chaos.

Elliott Abrams, the top Middle East official on the National Security Council, has met at least twice since Election Day with European ambassadors to discuss the peace process.

Participants described the meetings as unusually open and warm; Abrams was more willing than ever to listen to European concerns about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies, they said. It was a sharp reversal from the coolness marking differences over global warming, trade and the Iraq war.

Last week, Bush notably singled out Germany, France and Britain to thank them for their work in persuading Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment, though the administration reportedly remains deeply skeptical of the agreement’s chances of success. In addition, the first foreign leader Bush met after his election was British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The new U.S.-European warmth is consistent with renewed European engagement in the Middle East, as the German and Spanish foreign ministers prepare to launch regional tours.

“There’s a confluence of interests that has come with the passing of Yasser Arafat,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “The bottom line is that the Bush administration needs the Europeans for a number of projects in the Middle East and the Europeans realize they can’t go it alone on Israel-Palestine without the U.S.”

Bush staffers suggest that what the president sees as a clear mandate for his foreign policy after his re-election informs his new confidence with the Europeans.

Significantly, the push is coming not from outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell — whose State Department was left out of the loop on the Abrams meetings — but from Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser and his nominee to succeed Powell.

Rice has said that European officials — facing a swelling Islamist threat on their own continent, as exemplified by the recent brutal slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh — are coming around to Bush’s view that democracies face a “global war” on terrorism.

Van Gogh, who earlier this year released a film critical of how women are treated under Islam, was murdered on Nov. 2, allegedly by an Islamic extremist.

Bush ordered Abrams, Rice and other staffers to read Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky’s just-published “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” Sharansky’s thesis, that only free societies guarantee regional and global security, hews closely to Bush’s own strategy in Iraq, with the Palestinians and elsewhere.

Rice and others have taken to borrowing phrases from the book, speaking of the “stabilizing influence of democracy.”

Bush’s new European emphasis does not mean the administration is backtracking in its support for Israel, Rice assured a group of top U.S. Jewish officials Monday. Bush would not pay a “price” to the Europeans of distancing the United States from Israel, she said.

“I hope that everyone understands by now that you don’t extract a price from this president,” Rice said, according to notes taken by a participant. “The things he has always stood for relative to Israel’s security and a settlement that is fair and just, he absolutely stands by those commitments.”

Still, Rice emphasized once again that Bush expects results from Israel.

“Israel also has responsibilities and the administration will expect Israel to abide by its responsibilities,” the participant quoted Rice as telling the 14 leaders of organizations including the Reform movement, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Israel Policy Forum, the Orthodox Union and the Anti-Defamation League. Other participants confirmed the content of Rice’s remarks.

Israel’s responsibilities under the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan — which Rice said was still on track — include a settlement freeze, a key European demand.

In the short term, Bush wants Palestinian elections that will ensure a smooth transition of power to the likeliest successor to Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, who is favored by Israel and the United States as a relative moderate.

“With Arafat’s demise we’ll have a chance to see if the democratic process can proceed among the Palestinians,” Rice was quoted as saying.

Sharon already has responded, pledging to keep roads open and access to polls free on Jan. 9, and suggesting he is open to allowing the 230,000 Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem to vote.

Sharon also has backpedaled from demands that the Palestinians end violence before peace talks can resume. Sharon now calls for an end to Palestinian incitement against Israel, and Abbas soon echoed the call.

Rice also said the Bush administration wants Israel to proceed with its planned removal of settlements from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank by the end of next year. She made sure the Jewish officials understood that the withdrawal was consistent with the road map, and in fact would accelerate the plan.

“It creates the impetus to move on to greater and faster achievements,” Rice was quoted as saying. Bush administration officials were offended in September when Sharon’s top adviser, Dov Weisglass, said the pullout would place Palestinian statehood — and the road map — in “formaldehyde” until the Palestinians undertake the thorough governmental and security reforms they have pledged to carry out under the road map.

Keeping the Jewish community onside is important as Bush advances the peace process. Two weeks before the Rice meeting, Abrams had a conference call with some of the same participants, outlining the same themes.

Some Jewish leaders are actively encouraging Bush. An IPF letter in support of Bush’s push, meant to garner just 25 signatories, drew 80 over three days, including the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements, major donors to both parties and past chairmen of the Conference of Presidents.

“A vigorous, American-led effort to turn this vision into reality would encourage international support for America’s broad Middle East policy and diminish anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world,” the letter said.

Still, there has been resistance among some in the organized Jewish community to Sharon’s accelerated pace. Constituent organizations of the Conference of Presidents threatened an end-run around the umbrella group last month to get it to issue an endorsement of the Gaza withdrawal, and the eventual endorsement was less than enthusiastic.

Israeli opponents of the withdrawal plan are trying to stoke the same fires that emboldened congressional opposition to the Oslo process in the 1990s.

Effie Eitam, the National Religious Party head who resigned his Cabinet position in opposition to Sharon’s plan, was in Washington on Tuesday trying to drum up support for the settlers. One pro-Israel official said Eitam’s impact would be “negligible.”

Eitam shouldn’t expect the same success his counterparts had in the 1990s when they lobbied against Oslo, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“It’s harder to campaign against the Gaza withdrawal in the United States, given that a consistent majority of Israelis support it and that it is being spearheaded by Ariel Sharon, who has hawkish credentials,” Makovksy said.

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