New Role For EuropeansIn Mideast Peace Talks?
This week’s flurry of Mideast diplomacy, which came during a visit to the region by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, reflected a decision in Washington to continue its mediation role and to avoid an all-out confrontation with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at least for now.
At the same time, the newest American-led effort, which will include high-level meetings in London on May 4, opens the door to greater British participation, and possibly involvement by the European Union, whose leaders claim Washington is too close to Israel to serve as an honest broker in the difficult talks.
Although Netanyahu sought the expanded British role, it could eventually open up new channels for U.S. and European pressure on his government, observers here say.
The format of the
London sessions — individual meetings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat — is similar to the format of January’s unsuccessful Washington meetings featuring the same cast of characters.
The London meetings reflect a new U.S.-British partnership in the troubled peace process.
“It’s a coordinated Anglo-American effort,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “It would be a mistake to view this as an independent effort by the Europeans.”
The London meetings are a continuation of recent American efforts to find a formula for bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, not a sweeping new plan for resolving the year-long deadlock, Hordes said.
“It shows the administration hasn’t given up on the process, that they are continuing on the lines they have pursued up to this point,” he said. “They feel they’re in the ball park, and they’re looking for new ways to bridge the remaining gaps.”
But Hordes and other observers agree that if the London talks do not advance the peace process at least incrementally, there is a danger that the administration will step back and let the Europeans take on a greater role.
The fact that Britain now holds the revolving EU presidency adds to the likelihood of greater involvement by the European group, which has generally not been sympathetic to Israel’s interests.
“Right now Britain is acting with guidance from Washington,” said a longtime Mideast observer here. “But if we haven’t moved forward in a month, this week’s developments will look like a signal to the Europeans to increase their involvement — which will not be a welcome development in Jerusalem. It’s clearly an indication of frustration in Washington with the behavior of the Netanyahu government.”
State Department officials say the London meetings are scheduled to last only one day, although that could change if progress in the talks warrants a three-way summit. Blair will not participate directly in the talks, but he will be involved in economic meetings that will take place at the same time.
The announcement came at the conclusion of a round of Mideast diplomacy by the British leader that included stops in Gaza, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Jerusalem. Blair met with Netanyahu on Tuesday and both leaders tried to downplay expectations for next month’s talks.
The U.S. has reportedly proposed a 13.1 percent Israeli withdrawal from West Bank land, which Netanyahu says would jeopardize Israel’s security.
Blair’s efforts stood in sharp contrast to those by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who incensed Israeli officials last month with calls for increased pressure on Israel and his decision to visit Har Homa with Palestinian authorities but not stop at Yad Vashem.
Officials in Washington said invitations to the London meetings were extended before Blair’s high-profile meetings this week.
Early this week, the administration was trying to keep expectations low for the upcoming London sessions.
“We’re not aware at this point that there has been any substantive change of the position of either of the parties,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin on Monday. “And as far as we’re concerned, there still are very significant and difficult roadblocks to restarting the peace process.”
But administration officials hope enough incremental progress can be made on secondary issues — including the long-delayed Palestinian airport and the Karni industrial park in Gaza — to impart some momentum to the sagging talks.
Special envoy Dennis Ross and Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk were due in the region late this week to resume negotiations on these and other issues in preparation for the May 4 London sessions.
There were reports that Netanyahu was ready to agree on the airport issue — but that Arafat, eager to maintain international pressure on Jerusalem, was unwilling to cut a deal.
Egypt will accept a likely reduction in its foreign aid, but the Cairo government won’t exactly be gleeful about the “voluntary” cut.
That was one of the messages conveyed by Economy Minister Yousef Boutros-Ghali, a nephew of former UN General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The personable Egyptian official, after meetings with administration and congressional officials, said that his country would accept an aid cut to help fund other U.S. Mideast aid priorities “if we have to.” He also said that his nation’s expanding economy is now better able to absorb aid cuts than it was a few years ago.
Israel has agreed to return $50 million of its economic aid, but is trying to work out a formula that would offset part of the cut with an increase in military assistance. The Clinton administration and congressional leaders have made it clear they expect Egypt — the second biggest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel — to also accept an aid reduction.
On the Mideast peace process, Boutros-Ghali, who attended a small dinner hosted by Americans for Peace Now, said that the lost economic opportunities caused by the sagging talks are “staggering,” but also that the regional economic boom he said his country is leading will take place with or without Israel.
Because of the stalled peace process, he said, Egyptian and other Arab businesses see affiliation with Israeli firms as “not helpful.”
Boutros-Ghali was also on Capitol Hill last week lobbying against the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, a controversial measure now before Congress that would impose economic sanctions on countries that persecute religious minorities — a list that the Christian backers of the measure say includes Egypt.
Boutros-Ghali called the measure, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) “the dumbest piece of legislation I’ve seen,” and said it would hurt Coptic Christians in his country, one of the groups it was ostensibly intended to help. The economy minister is one of two Christians in the cabinet of President Hosni Mubarak.
Israel At 50 Party Favors
Jewish leaders are scrambling for invitations to a White House reception on Monday marking Israel’s 50th anniversary. But apparently, many will be disappointed.
Plans for the last-minute ceremony were still unclear at press time, but administration sources said that 300 or 400 Jewish machers will make the guest list.
President Bill Clinton will receive an honorary degree from Hebrew University in recognition of his work on behalf of Middle East peace, they said, and Vice President Al Gore will use the occasion to discuss his upcoming trip to Israel to participate in Jubilee celebrations there.
The timing of the gathering could be problematic; it will take place as U.S. Special envoy Dennis Ross conducts yet another round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at breaking the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.
Early this week, Jewish activists in Washington were grumbling about the fact that plans were developed at the last minute — and that the Washington representatives of Jewish groups were largely being overlooked in favor of lay leaders from around the country.
Dramatic Sheinbein Developments
The case of Samuel Sheinbein, accused in a gruesome murder in a Washington suburb in September and now fighting extradition from Israel, continues to produce headlines in the capital — and discomfort for the Jewish state.
Last week, Sheinbein’s alleged accomplice — Aaron Needle, 18 — hanged himself in a Montgomery County jail.
Sheinbein and Needle, both former Jewish day school students, were accused in the killing and dismemberment of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., 19.
Needle, whose trial was scheduled to begin this week, was reportedly distraught about evidence — some of it provided by a former inmate at the suburban Washington detention center — documenting the grisly details of the crime.
After Needle’s death, Montgomery County prosecutors, complaining about the “cumbersome” extradition process in Israel, suggested they might try Sheinbein in absentia.
Sheinbein, who fled to Israel after the murder, is fighting extradition based on his father’s claim to Israeli citizenship.
Israel, like some European countries, prohibits the extradition of its nationals to other countries.
Israeli legal authorities are pursuing extradition anyway, but observers there expect the process to be a long one. No ruling is expected until at least July — and if Sheinbein is judged deportable, he is expected to appeal. That means it could be more than two years before Maryland prosecutors get their hands on the accused teen.