WASHINGTON, May 31 (JTA) After four months of planning Mideast policy with a team made up mostly of Clinton-appointed officials, President Bush is moving decisively to assemble his own team.
The most prominent steps were the recent confirmation of William Burns as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and the nomination of Daniel Kurtzer to be ambassador to Israel.
Secretary of State Colin Powell last week designated Burns along with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and the consul general in Jerusalem, Ron Schlicher to revive security talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The trio is urging both sides to accept proposals outlined in May by an international commission led by former Sen. George Mitchell.
The Bush administration views the three men as its Middle East team, with the same power and leeway that the Clinton administration gave to former Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross and his group. While Ross became famous for his strenuous work in “shuttle diplomacy,” however, a State Department official said the new team will be less ubiquitous.
“We’re proving that you can be deeply engaged with the parties without a special Middle East coordinator,” the official said. The SMEC office was closed by Powell in his first days at State, and Powell has said repeatedly that he is reluctant to reopen it.
Analysts have criticized the lack of personal involvement in Middle East issues at the top level of the Bush administration, particularly by Bush himself and Powell.
Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, has said that Israel and the Palestinians were spoiled by the extensive personal attention from Clinton and previous presidents, and may interpret the lack of senior-level involvement as a lack of interest in the region.
The State Department brushes aside such concerns, saying Clinton’s personal involvement was so intensive as to blunt its effectiveness, and was a level of engagement too high to replicate.
“We’re cognizant in the administration that you do need to maintain the power of the presidency to impact the process at a suitable time,” a State Department official said. However, the official added, now is not the time.
For the time being, the brunt of the task is left to Burns. The former ambassador to Jordan was confirmed only last Friday as assistant secretary, but already had been working as an envoy for Powell.
In his confirmation hearing, Burns called active American engagement in the Middle East “a necessity, not an option,” but said the United States needs to be humble in its approach.
“We have no monopoly on wisdom in the Middle East,” Burns said in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 17. “It is in our self-interest to listen carefully to our friends and consult widely, both inside and outside the region, while remaining committed to our principles and expecting that our friends will address our concerns too.”
As assistant secretary, Burns’ portfolio extends far beyond Jerusalem. He frequently will have to attend to other U.S. concerns in the region such as Iraq, Iran and Lebanon leaving a gap in the U.S. presence in the peace process.
“I’m not so convinced that Bill Burns will be able to devote the amount of time to Arab-Israeli matters that Dennis Ross did,” an official with a Jewish organization said.
Powell has been seeking advice and counsel from a wide variety of sources, including Ross and Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria. Djerejian has been mentioned as a possible special envoy if Powell chooses to go that route.
Schlicher, in Jerusalem, serves as Washington’s main liaison with the Palestinians, after serving in Egypt and Lebanon.
Burns is being aided by Indyk, a former assistant secretary whose second tour of duty in Tel Aviv ends this summer. He is expected to be replaced by Kurtzer, currently the U.S. ambassador to Egypt.
Kurtzer’s nomination has been anticipated for months and has become a point of contention among the American Jewish community. Though he is an Orthodox Jew, right-wing groups are concerned that Kurtzer will take a pro- Arab viewpoint, and they disagree with his position on Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Kurtzer is an opponent of “natural growth,” a policy Israel uses to justify its expansion of settlements. While the State Department has said repeatedly that it opposes the construction of new settlements, it has been evasive in addressing “natural growth.”
Groups like the Zionist Organization of America have taken out advertisements opposing Kurtzer’s nomination, but the diplomat has found unlikely allies in the Reform and Conservative movements, which sent a letter to Bush last month refuting criticism of Kurtzer.
In foreign service circles, Kurtzer is considered a brilliant analyst.
“The way he handled adversaries in Egypt should be taught to all foreign service officers,” said a former Israeli diplomat who has worked with Kurtzer for almost 20 years.
An official with a Jewish organization, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that when times were toughest, he questioned Kurtzer as to why he kept working toward peace. Kurtzer’s reply was succinct.
“This is my life,” Kurtzer reportedly said.
“He goes to sleep every night and wakes up every morning wondering how he can move the ball forward,” the official said.
Both Burns and Kurtzer have strong relations with Arab leaders from their previous postings. They are described as Arabists because of their sympathy for Arab positions, but generally are considered friends of Israel as well. Both also are widely praised as professional, and many analysts believe they will be able to adapt to the changes brought about by the presence of new leaders in the United States and Middle East.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the identity of the envoys matters less than the message they carry from the United States.
“The major factor is that the administration and events on the ground are going to shape the policy,” Hoenlein said. “The ongoing violence leaves little room for maneuverability.”