New U.S. Plan In Works?

by James D. Besser
Washington Correspondent
With Palestinian terror attacks continuing unabated, the Bush administration is dropping broad hints that it may be almost ready to offer more detailed suggestions for ending 20 months of violence.
This week the administration dispatched two top officials to the region to begin the process of “reforming” the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus and to assess prospects for this summer’s planned international peace conference — a proposal that still exists only in the roughest outlines.
The administration also hinted that it may be ready to propose a “timeline” for new Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
But Washington insiders say the diplomatic flurry was meant mostly to create the illusion of movement.
In fact, they say, the administration is reeling from a series of foreign policy setbacks and emergencies that has left its
Mideast policy in shambles.
“They understand that the Middle East needs their attention, but there’s a strong feeling that nothing they’ve done so far has worked, and that other areas of the world are even more dangerous at the moment,” said an official with a major pro-Israel group here.
The list of new crises includes the explosive confrontation between two nuclear nations, India and Pakistan, and the floundering U.S. effort to overthrow Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
The policy paralysis is all the greater because of the ongoing internal debate over whether Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat can ever become a serious partner in any peace negotiations.
This week administration officials leaked word that they were “debating” the possibility of offering a new U.S. plan outlining the goals of new negotiations and including a timeline.
But sources said that it is far from certain that a new plan is in the offing — and that if it is, it will far short of the detailed plan offered by President Bill Clinton at Taba.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking to reporters in Rome, said that “we are not at this point prepared to table an American plan with specific deadlines.”
The administration also continues to back the idea of an international peace conference, which would include foreign ministers of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the European Union nations, Russia and representatives of the United Nations.
But officials in Washington are downplaying expectations for such a conference, which they hope will take place sometime this summer, probably in Europe.
“They’re still debating the basics,” said Henry Siegman, head of the Middle East program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The State Department argues that the proposed regional meeting can’t work unless it identifies a goal and treats the conference as a venue for working out a detailed roadmap for reaching that goal. But others are still arguing against the U.S. taking any strong positions.”
Adding to the confusion is the continuing uncertainty about Arafat.
“There is still no concrete evidence Arafat is doing all he can do to stop the violence,” said Siegman, who just returned from the region. As long as doubts persist, he said, Washington will balk at offering detailed proposals for the upcoming regional meeting.
And that, according to Siegman, will make it much harder to convince other Mideast nations to attend.
Assistant Secretary of State William Burns began a six-nation regional swing this week to assess the situation and to ratchet up the pressure on Arafat; CIA director George Tenet was tentatively scheduled to go late this week, although officials warned that other world situations — especially the India- Pakistan confrontation — could force him to put off the visit.
On Tuesday Powell laid out three goals for the twin diplomatic missions: helping reform Palestinian security services, renewing a “serious political process that aims at a two-state solution” and “building strong, responsible Palestinian Authority institutions in preparation for statehood.”
But some observers say the diplomatic confusion is the result of fundamentally flawed assumptions about the region.
“They are acting as if the problem is undirected violence,” said Mideast analyst Daniel Pipes. “Their solution is to get the parties to make minimal concessions so that the violence will end. In fact, it’s not undirected violence; it’s a war for the destruction of Israel. Not understanding that, the administration doesn’t have any idea of what to do.