WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (JTA) — The appointment of two officials with Middle East expertise to key roles in the State Department may be a signal that the Bush administration will focus more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than had been expected.

The White House on Tuesday named Richard Haass as director of policy planning and Marc Grossman as undersecretary of political affairs. Haass will serve as a direct adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell on policy issues, while Grossman will oversee the regional bureaus in the State Department and serve in the department’s No.3 position.

In addition, Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a prominent Middle East think tank, is under consideration for the post of Middle East adviser to the National Security Council, sources said.

Of the State Department appointees, Haass was senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the administration of the elder President Bush. An adviser during the Persian Gulf War, Haass recently served as vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

At Brookings, Haass authored several books on sanctions, the use of military force and other international issues. In an article published after the Israeli-Palestinian summit last fall in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, Haass advocated “concerted unilateralism,” calling for an agreement between the two sides without a formal pact signing.

In the article, Haass laid out terms for a settlement, including the declaration of a Palestinian state and the annexation to Israel of most Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Under this plan, the two sides would put off the more complex issues, such as control of Jerusalem.

“The result would not be peace or an end to the conflict or a signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House,” Haass wrote in December 2000. “Rather, it would be a de facto separation of the two sides reflecting a tacit arrangement to stabilize the situation. It would still require cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian officials, but it would not require either side’s leadership to explain to its citizens why it forfeited certain powerful symbols or jettisoned deeply held goals.”

Grossman currently serves as director general of the Foreign Service and is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Grossman also held several positions in the Near East bureau and was an adviser to President Carter.

Grossman spoke last year to both the Middle East Forum, a think tank in Philadelphia, and a House of Representatives subcommittee on the relationship between Turkey and Israel.

“Turkey’s relations with Israel are flourishing,” Grossman told the Middle East Forum last March. “We support the closest possible ties between our two allies. This is a relationship aimed at no one, with the potential to benefit everyone.”

While both officials have Middle East backgrounds, political analysts note that Grossman, Haass and other officials whose appointments are imminent also have expertise in Europe.

Before the Clinton administration, the State Department had long been perceived as Arabist in its political thought, but the latest series of appointments ease some concerns in the Jewish community. However, other ethnic groups are expressing similar concerns that their viewpoints are being left out.

Arab and Muslim groups announced their opposition to Satloff, whom they consider biased, as an adviser to the National Security Council.

One Arab leader wrote that if Satloff was appointed, “we will never see an American policy that could be ‘balanced’ and could allow for a durable peace.”

“I urge you to seek a better candidate for that position,” wrote Elaine Hagopian, a sociology professor at Simmons College in Boston.

Satloff was unavailable for comment.

A former deputy director of the institute for Near East policy, John Hannah, already has been named as a Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Hannah’s appointment may signal an increased role by the White House and vice president’s office in shaping Middle East policy.

Traditionally, the vice president’s foreign affairs office has been thin and has had little responsibility, but it was significantly strengthened during the Clinton/Gore administration, a former NSC official said.

The hiring of specialized regional advisers appears to signal that the trend will continue. Given Cheney’s impressive foreign affairs credentials, it is not surprising that he would have a large role in international issues.

But the vice president’s office will have to compete with the NSC, State Department and Pentagon for a place at the table, creating the potential for conflict between different offices and philosophies.

“It’s going to be a fight for his mind,” the NSC official said, referring to President Bush. “It’s going to be an internal struggle for influence over the president’s thinking.”

While Hannah — and, if he is appointed, Satloff — can provide Israel expertise to the White House, Grossman and Haass will be able to inject themselves into Middle East issues at the State Department.

Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, said it is logical that prominent international experts would have Middle East backgrounds, since the region is very important politically.

“The Middle East offers an opportunity, in a way that no other regions have, to springboard people to national prominence,” Pipes said.

The new appointments make it more likely that the State Department will have a larger role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Pipes said, especially since the White House — which virtually oversaw U.S. involvement during the Clinton administration — is expected to be somewhat less involved under Bush.

But Israeli activists critical of recent U.S. policy said they are concerned that the two State Department appointments — particularly that of Haass, who has been more vocal with his recommendations for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — signal a return to active American involvement in the peace process.

“If you are bringing in people for broader positions that have specialties in Israel, I’m concerned that Bush may not be fulfilling his promise of not pressing Israel to take positions it doesn’t want to take,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Responding to the election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister, Bush said Wednesday that he would reach out slowly to the parties in the region.

“We’re going to play the hand we’ve been dealt,” Bush said. “And we’re going to play it well, with one thing in mind: that we promote peace in the Middle East.”

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