U.S. in election year 'holding pattern' on Palestinian state

Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Bush administration has little hope that an interim Palestinian state will be established in 2004.

Officials said President George Bush and his top aides were said to have concluded that the prospect of a dramatic breakthrough that would lead to an agreement for an interim Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank appears unlikely in 2004. They said the administration envisions a continuing cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence fueled by Iran and Hizbullah that will rule out virtually any diplomatic gain.

The president did not mention Arab or Gulf allies of the United States in the war in Iraq. An official said at least one GCC state asked Bush not to mention such cooperation so as to avoid unrest in the Gulf region. Unlike previous years, Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, did not attend the State of the Union address.

Bush's decision to leave out the Arab-Israeli conflict was quickly noticed by the Democratic opposition in the House and Senate.

"Everybody right now is in a holding pattern and that means the chance of an agreement of any sort is low," an administration official said. "The main aim of the administration is to keep the violence from spiraling out of control."

Officials said the administration still hopes that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority will achieve progress on the internationally-sponsored roadmap plan, which calls for a Palestinian state with permanent borders in 2005.

They said the administration had pressed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to dismantle unauthorized outposts and withdraw troops from some areas of the West Bank in measures aimed to facilitate this process.

On Thursday, a senior aide of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Weisglass, meets U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other senior administration officials to discuss the roadmap and efforts to establish a Palestinian state. Officials said Weisglass was called to Washington as part of a message by the administration that it will not abandon efforts to advance the roadmap during 2004.

Officials said Sharon, who has been named in a bribery scandal in Israel, was expected to arrive in Washington in February to meet Bush and discuss a series of measures meant to accelerate plans to establish a Palestinian state. In preparations for that meeting, they said, the administration plans to send several senior officials to the Middle East, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield and ambassador John Wolf. Wolf, appointed by the president to oversee the implementation of the roadmap plan, was not in Israel during most of the last half of 2003.

"They're going to make clear, as we have been doing for some time, that in order to make progress on the president's on the roadmap and the president's 2002 vision of two states, both sides need to meet their responsibilities and obligations," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said on Wednesday. "We're going to be looking for concrete steps from the Palestinians to confront terror and violence, as well as progress on reform. And we will be reiterating to Israel the need for sustained efforts to improve the humanitarian situation and stick to other commitments, including settlement and outpost activity."

Officials said the administration does not want to establish a Palestinian state that would contain what they term a terrorist infrastructure. They said such a development would further destabilize the region and could affect U.S. plans to begin to withdraw from Iraq in 2005.

On Tuesday, Bush did not mention the Arab-Israeli conflict in his State of the Union address. The foreign policy section of Bush's speech was limited to such administration successes as the U.S. capture of Saddam Hussein and Libya's decision to dismantle weapons of mass destruction program and the example it could set for Iran and North Korea.

"As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends," Bush said. "So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East. We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friend."

Democrats said the administration has decided to disengage from the conflict.

"Instead of the diplomatic disengagement that almost destroyed the Middle East peace process and aggravated the danger posed by North Korea," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, "let us seek to forge agreements and coalitions -- so that, together with others, we can address challenges before they threaten the security of the world."

Many Arab and Western diplomats regarded Bush's speech as a message to the Middle East that Iraq, rather than the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, would be the focus of his administration's policy in 2004. They said Washington would maintain a low-profile effort to advance a Palestinian state.

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