WASHINGTON, May 15 (JTA) A U.S. invitation to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is still not in the offing, but his chief deputy met this week with Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The meeting represented the highest-level talks yet between Bush administration officials and Palestinian leaders in Washington.
Mahmoud Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, requested a meeting with Powell during his visit to Washington this week for a medical checkup.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also attended the meeting, sources told JTA.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator and spokesman, Saeb Erekat, spoke in New York on Tuesday alongside Yossi Beilin, Israel’s former justice minister and one of its leading doves.
The two discussed the prospects of resuming peace talks from the point where they broke off just before Israeli elections in early February.
The Abbas visit is being downplayed by State Department officials, who say they had been expecting him for several months.
The United States has tried to remain even-handed in its approach to Israeli-Palestinian violence, but Palestinian leaders have been noticeably absent from the schedules of the president and secretary of state.
President Clinton invited Arafat to the White House more often than any other foreign leader, but Arafat has not been invited back since President Bush moved in four months ago.
State Department officials said they do not believe an Arafat visit is imminent.
“I don’t think Arafat is pressing really hard to come to Washington,” the official said though the conventional wisdom is precisely the opposite.
If Arafat were to arrive in the United States, he likely would face protests wherever he went. Congress also might use the occasion to condemn the Palestinians’ role in violence that began last September.
“When you’re not the most popular guy in town, why come to town and force the issue?” the official asked.
But most others believe Arafat would like to reprise the warm relationship he had with the Clinton administration.
David Schenker, a Palestinian affairs analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believes Arafat is seeking a visit and many people in the State Department would support it.
“The State Department would like Arafat to come,” Schenker said. “They want to get both parties back to the peace process.”
It is the White House, Schenker said, that has been hesitant to host Arafat since it feels that, at the very least, he has not done enough to bring Palestinian violence under control.
The new administration has been strategic in choosing which international leaders Bush will host.
So far, he has welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah.
State Department officials said Bush had to meet with all the Middle East leaders who have signed permanent peace agreements with Israel before entertaining Arafat.
The Bush administration considers a White House visit a carrot to dangle before Arafat as a reward for significantly reducing Palestinian violence against Israel, analysts said.
Some have been encouraged by Arafat’s endorsement of an Egyptian- Jordanian plan drafted together with Palestinian officials and the Mitchell Commission report, both of which outline steps to quell violence and bring the sides back to the peace table.
Still, most analysts believe the Palestinian leader has not done enough to merit a White House visit.
In New York, both Erekat and Beilin lent their support to the Mitchell Commission recommendations.
In a forum organized by Americans for Peace Now, Erekat described the report as “very harsh and very difficult to swallow” for the Palestinians, “but it did not depart conceptually from agreements already signed.”
The report “could provide the answers we’ve been seeking for the past eight months,” he said.
However, Erekat did not publicly address the report’s core criticism of the Palestinians that they have initiated and refused to reign in violence. No one in the audience pressed Erekat on this point.
Beilin, however, was outspoken in his criticism of Sharon’s plans to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip which, he said, the Mitchell report rightly criticized as provocative.
Some Israelis have criticized Beilin’s recent freelance diplomacy he has met frequently with Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, although he is not a member of the Sharon government or even of the Knesset as tantamount to treachery.
On Tuesday, Beilin said that settlement expansion, whether as a result of “natural growth” or political strategy, is an impediment to peace.
“Who are we deceiving?” he asked. “Don’t we understand what we have done to ourselves with these settlements? After all these years, we’ll still have to go back to the ’67 borders” to achieve peace.
“There should be a total freeze on settlement expansion, and 100 percent effort on the part of the Palestinians to end the violence,” Beilin said. “No games. They are playing games, but there must be no games.”
The two men also endorsed the launch of a new Israeli movement called the Peace Coalition, comprised of parts of the Labor Party and groups further left.
Both acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining hope amid escalating violence, but noted how much progress was made in the 15 months of negotiations that preceded the Palestinian uprising.
“I know of no people who want peace more than the Israelis. I know of no people who want peace more than the Palestinians,” Erekat said. “But I know of no people with more shattered hopes than the Israelis and the Palestinians. And that’s a difficult thing. A permanent peace is within reach and is doable. But we need more time.”
(JTA Staff Writer Michael J. Jordan in New York contributed to this report.)