Warren P. Strobel
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON – Yasser Arafat’s death opens a narrow window of opportunity for President Bush to engage decisively for the first time in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, current and former U.S. officials said Thursday.
If history is any guide, the chance will be fleeting, extremists could sabotage any progress with violence and political caution could lead to missed opportunities.
Following the lead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush refused to have any dealings with Arafat for more than two years because of the Palestinian leader’s unwillingness to end terror attacks on Israelis. Bush instead called on Palestinians to choose leaders committed to peace.
In that time, the United States was essentially absent from what diplomats euphemistically call “the peace process.” Sharon went his own way, building a security wall along the West Bank and planning Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
With Arafat’s death _ which came eight days after Bush’s re-election _ diplomats expect Bush and Sharon to come under sharply increased international pressure to work directly with the Palestinians. Bush meets Friday with his closest foreign ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who backs a new Mideast peacemaking push.
The key question is whether the Bush administration will intervene to promote an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue or hang back to see what kind of Palestinian leaders emerge.
“We need to get in there now … and begin to have a three-way dialogue,” said Dennis Ross, the U.S. Middle East envoy under the first President Bush and President Clinton.
Palestinians are supposed to hold elections for a new president within 60 days.
But the elections won’t come off unless Israel eases restrictions on Palestinian life and the Palestinians don’t take advantage of the easing to pursue terrorist attacks, said Ross, author of a recent book, “The Missing Peace,” on previous attempts at Arab-Israeli rapprochement that fell short.
Bush and his top aides have reacted cautiously since Arafat fell seriously ill late last month.
The president reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state, but he and Secretary of State Colin Powell have put the onus on the Palestinians to take the first steps.
Powell said Wednesday that the leaders who replace Arafat must pledge to fight terrorism and rally the Palestinians behind that course. “If that kind of leadership emerges that can do that, then we stand ready to work with them,” he said.
Bush chose to send Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, a midlevel official, to Arafat’s funeral Friday in Cairo. Most other countries are sending foreign ministers or, in some cases, their leaders.
Flynt Leverett, a former White House and CIA official now at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said Powell should have been dispatched and called it “a missed opportunity to move this process forward.”
An U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved, said the choice of Burns “was the balance the government came up with” between showing respect for the Palestinians and the White House’s aversion to Arafat.
Yet the White House is keen to support Palestinian elections _ precisely how hasn’t been established _ and has sent the message to its allies in Europe and elsewhere that “we’re open-minded” about how to move forward, the same official said.
Two aides to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Daniel Fried and Elliott Abrams, met last week with European representatives to coordinate actions after Arafat’s death, according to U.S. officials and others who follow the region.
They agreed to support Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the occupied Gaza Strip, according to one individual briefed on the meeting.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.