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Bush, Rice face Mideast resistance

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on July 22 at Sharon´s ranch in the southern Negev desert. (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy/BP Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on July 22 at Sharon´s ranch in the southern Negev desert. (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy/BP Images)

WASHINGTON, July 25 (JTA) — The Bush administration faces three fronts of resistance in selling its complex, nuanced plan for Mideast peace: Israel, the Palestinians and Congress. Condoleezza Rice’s lightning visit to the region last week — tacked onto an Africa tour at the last minute — underscored the U.S. secretary of state’s determination to make sure that Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next month jump-starts the peace process. The Bush administration is concerned that the recent acceleration of violence by Palestinian terrorists, the fierce political resistance displayed by pro-settler Israelis, and a failure by Israelis and Palestinians to coordinate ahead of the withdrawal could bury the hope of reviving peace talks. Rice made it clear that she’s ready to wade into the process if there is further resistance. “What I’m doing is making sure that the Israelis and the Palestinians understand where the United States stands on various issues, where necessary trying to facilitate an answer if one does not appear self-evident to each of the two parties,” she said after meeting Saturday in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Each side blames the other for preventing cooperation: Palestinians say they want more details on the settlements so they can plan for the takeover; Israel is concerned that such information could make its way to terrorists and facilitate attacks before and during the withdrawal. Israel says it has shown goodwill by authorizing the transfer of at least 5,000 P.A. policemen from the West Bank to Gaza to oversee the withdrawal and offering to discuss the rebuilding of a Gaza seaport and airport, despite concerns that such outlets could be used to bring in arms. “It’s all on the condition of improved security, which we haven’t seen yet,” an Israeli official said. While Rice was making the case for cooperation in the Middle East, her proxies were making the case for its funding on Capitol Hill. That followed surprising victories by members of Congress seeking tough oversight provisions on assistance to the Arabs, especially the Palestinians and Egyptians. The administration is especially eager to keep Egypt onboard, believing its role in smoothing Israel’s exit from Gaza by securing the borders is central to the plan’s chances of success. The terrorist attack this weekend in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik — that killed 64 people, per the Egyptian Health Ministry, and as many as 88 per local hospitals — could exacerbate Egyptian concerns about playing too central a role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for the attack, released a video describing the presence of Israeli tourists in Sinai as a “defilement” of Arab land. Three measures, all attached to a State Department authorization bill passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives, especially irritated the White House. One by Rep. Shelley Berkeley (D-Nev.) restricted direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority; another longstanding initiative by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) shifts $240 million in aid for Egypt from military to economic assistance; a third would require the State Department to accede to requests by U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to attach “Israel” to their birthplace in their passports. The provision on Egypt was of special concern to the administration. “Such changes could be viewed in a way that may undermine our efforts to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals in the Middle East and could have a negative consequence for political and economic reform in Egypt,” said a “Statement of Administration Policy” distributed in Congress last week just before the vote. Cutting Egypt’s military budget while increasing Israel’s would be seen as an affront in Egypt. The bill’s supporters say it addresses the glacial pace of democratic reform in Egypt, another plank of Bush’s Middle East policy. “Our military aid for Egypt is more than twice our aid for economic development and political reform,” Lantos said after his initiative passed. “Never has a prescription been so at odds with the symptoms it’s designed to treat.” Israeli spokesmen refused to comment on what they said was a U.S.-Egyptian matter but noted that negotiations with Egypt on policing the Gaza border after Israel withdraws are advanced. “The agreement is all but finalized,” an official said. Considering the stake that Israel now has in a cooperative Egypt, it was a surprise to many on the Hill that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee emphatically endorsed the Lantos amendment. AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr wrote to members of Congress that the amendment’s language “will help deal with the many challenges Egypt faces — challenges that eclipse any outside military threats.” The July 23 terrorist attack in Egypt, which took place just days after that letter reached legislators, might undermine claims that Egypt no longer faces a military threat, said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who opposed the change. “It would be counterproductive to handcuff in any way the Egyptian military and security forces at this point in time,” said Wexler, who, like Lantos, is Jewish. “The Israelis fully appreciate the importance of a strong American-Egyptian relationship.” The administration’s opposition to the passport provision on Jerusalem drew criticism from the Orthodox Union, usually a reliable Bush-administration ally on foreign policy. “While we appreciate the administration’s institutional interest to direct America’s foreign policy, we nonetheless appeal to the president — as one who has been a staunch friend of Israel throughout his tenure — to withdraw the administration’s opposition to these modest and sensible provisions,” said Nathan Diament, the O.U.’s director of public policy. Berkeley’s amendment, which would require direct aid to the Palestinian Authority to be distributed in quarterly installments and withheld unless P.A. officials meet accountability standards, was almost purely symbolic. Congress has already passed a host of provisions banning direct U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority, though Bush used his national-security waiver to get $50 million to Abbas. In any case, none of the provisions passed by the House are likely to survive negotiations with the Senate. Still, the Bush administration was concerned by the symbolism of such measures. “Such provisions limit the president’s flexibility to conduct the nation’s foreign policy,” it said in its statement of policy. That seems especially true now that Rice wants to act quickly in the three weeks before Israel begins pulling out of the Gaza Strip. In her meetings with Abbas, she praised him for taking some measures to rein in terrorists but also made clear that he was not doing enough. “Important steps have been taken, but much remains to be done to ensure that areas vacated by Israel will not once again be used as bases for terrorist actions,” Rice said. There also were signs that the Bush administration wants Israel to hold back on retaliatory attacks after terrorist attacks. A recent internal State Department memo said such attacks had a “profoundly negative effect” on Abbas’ ability to contain violence. Meeting with Sharon, the secretary of state said that Israel must ensure that its withdrawal from Gaza does not isolate the Palestinians. “When the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, it cannot be a sealed or isolated area, with the Palestinian people closed in after that withdrawal,” she said. “We are committed to connectivity between Gaza and the West Bank.” Rice singled out Israel’s security fence, departing somewhat from previous support for the passive device that has proven effective in preventing terrorist attacks. “We’ve expressed our deep concern about the route of the wall,” she said, using the Palestinian term for the barrier, “particularly around Jerusalem. And we have expressed the American policy on settlement activity, which remains that it should stop.”

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