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U.S.: Washington's 'Tepid' Support For Mideast Road Map Complicating Efforts For Peace

Is the U.S. administration lessening its involvement in the Middle East peace process, thereby favoring Israel? Analysts say that, indeed, appears to be the case.

Washington, 9 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts say the United States appears to be lessening its involvement in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, even at a time when Washington and its three partners in the Middle East peace process are considering a meeting on the ongoing crisis.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday in Washington that the administration of President George W. Bush has been discussing such a meeting with the other members of the so-called Quartet -- Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

It was the Quartet that devised what is known as the "road map" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It includes commitments from the Israelis to stop expansion of its settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and for the Palestinian leadership to stop terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

Three months ago, the road map looked somewhat promising.

Then came suicide bombings by Palestinian militant groups. And Israel hit back hard by launching attacks against the groups, who called off their cease-fire in August.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said during an interview on 7 September on American television that the cardinal issue in the Middle East is terrorism.

"The problem here is Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist organizations who do not want to see a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel," Powell said. "They want to destroy Israel, and terror is their weapon. And that has to be dealt with. And whoever the new Palestinian prime minister is, if there is going to be a process to peace, if the road map is going to continue to unfold -- and I believe it can continue to unfold -- then there has to be a concerted effort against Hamas and other terrorist organizations and terror activity."

Powell also was asked about Israel's failed effort on 6 September to assassinate Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas's spiritual leader: "We don't support that policy. It has never been our policy to support that kind of action. Israel feels it's necessary to take those actions. We are always saying to our Israeli colleagues, 'You have to consider the long-term consequences of such actions,' and, 'Are you creating more Hamas killers in the future by actions such as this,' which injures innocent people as well as going after somebody that they believe is guilty."

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say this is evidence that the United States is still willing to put up with violence committed by Israel but not with attacks by Palestinians. They say it is reminiscent of the policy adopted during the first year of the Bush administration not to interfere with Israeli steps to counter Palestinian suicide bombings.

That policy failed and, in the summer of 2002, Bush had to send Powell to the Middle East to salvage the peace process in meetings with both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in the rubble of his political headquarters.

Once re-engaged in the process, Bush earlier this year unveiled the Quartet's much-awaited road map. But since then, his administration has not given the new peace plan sufficient support. That's according to foreign policy analysts Marina Ottaway and Nathan Brown.

Both Ottaway and Brown say "disengagement" is probably too strong a word to use for the current U.S. approach to the peace process. Both prefer to use the term "tepid" to describe American support for the road map.

Ottaway is a senior associate of the Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy research center in Washington. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, also in Washington.

According to Ottaway, the Bush administration appears to want the Palestinian leadership to crack down on groups like Hamas and Palestinian Jihad with no reciprocation from the Israeli government, particularly in the area of ending the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

This, Ottaway says, shows that Bush has invested little in the Middle East peace process since he unveiled the road map with much fanfare last spring: "The U.S. is trying to straddle the line. If they want to bring about a compromise, they cannot come across as being just supporting Israel, and I think that's why [you have] the tepid support for the actions against Hamas."

Ottaway says she believes Bush essentially stopped promoting the road map before it had a chance to take hold with a Palestinian cease-fire. And now, she says, the U.S. simply does not know what to do because it can think of no alternative to the Quartet's peace plan.

"I think what is happening is that the road map is going strictly nowhere and the Bush administration does not have anything to suggest," she said. "They are not disengaging openly in the same way they did before. They are not pushing anything in particular because they have nothing to push."

Ottaway says there is, however, an alternative to the road map: putting pressure on Israel to do what even the Israelis know could credibly lead to a settlement with the Palestinians -- that is, exchange land for peace. This, she says, must include all the occupied territories, without Israeli settlements and without the security fence that she says creates de facto shrunken borders for a Palestinian state.

Brown -- of George Washington University -- agrees that the Bush administration has given weak support to the road map since it was launched: "There was only a very tepid American attempt to put the road map into action once it had got off the ground. It right away ran into trouble and the United States was far less than forceful in pushing it."

Brown also sees a U.S. bias in favor of Israel, and says that bias could have been recognized much earlier than the Powell interview on 7 September. He notes that despite Bush's public embrace of former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at the White House just two months ago, the U.S. president and his administration have repeatedly shown by their words that they favor Israel.

"[U.S. officials have] passed judgment on the Palestinian leader and his suitability, but they haven't passed judgment on the Israeli leader and his suitability," Brown said. "Their language on Palestinian obligations is tougher than their language on Israeli obligations. But I would say the tilt is not extreme and is probably less of a problem than really a withdrawal of muscle from the entire process."

But Brown says this American tilt toward Israel is not "extreme," as he put it, and that it is far less troublesome than the nearly complete disengagement that characterized the first year of Bush's administration.

According to Brown the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, look to Washington as the only credible broker for peace -- the Israelis because of their long-standing friendship with the United States and the Palestinians because they know only the Americans can bring meaningful pressure on Israel to make the concessions necessary for peace.

Brown says the Palestinians may respect the United States for its power and influence, but they will not trust Washington until it uses this influence effectively.