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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Bush seeks coherent Mid-East policy
Fires burn in Palestine
The US has interests that will force it to act in the face of violence
By BBC Washington Correspondent Stephen Sackur

Bill Clinton wanted to play a starring role on the Middle East stage while George W Bush would much prefer to be watching from the wings.

In fact presidential candidate Bush and his team several times criticised the extent of Mr Clinton's involvement in the search for Middle East peace.
Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak
President Bush criticised Bill Clinton for being too involved in the Middle East peace process

The Bush campaign said that that Israelis and Palestinians were "pushed" towards a deal that neither side was ready for.

They said the power of the American Presidency was "diminished" by over-involvement in the detail of peace making; and wider US interests in the Middle East were skewed by Clinton's "egotistical" desire for an historic Barak-Arafat accord.

Sidelines not an option

But now George Bush sits in the White House and watches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spiral out of control, and he has to figure out a coherent, responsible course for the United States to take.

Simply watching from the sideline, waiting patiently for the violence to stop, is not an option.

Because, like it or not, America has vital strategic interests at stake in the Middle East.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Colin Powell stopped short of committing himself to visiting the Middle East

Washington provides Israel with $3 billion dollars of aid a year - most of it military. The Israeli F-16s that bombed Nablus were a gift from Uncle Sam.

And US officials, diplomats and CIA emissaries have for several years played a vital role behind the scenes of this conflict, working with the security services of both sides, trying to establish a framework for cooperation amid all the suspicion and distrust.

Of course, that kind of role has been impossible in recent months, as relations between Israel and the Palestinians have steadily worsened; nonetheless, it is hard to see how the violence can end without the active involvement of the United States.

Treading a fine line

Now the Bush Administration seems to have reached the same conclusion, albeit reluctantly.

No sooner had the ink dried on the official publication of the Mitchell Report than Secretary of State Colin Powell rushed to the microphones to offer his own endorsement of the former Senator's recommendations.

Mr Powell is treading a fine line. He wants to employ Washington's diplomatic muscle without becoming embroiled in direct and open-ended negotiations.

So his demand for an immediate cessation of violence - with a particular emphasis on Yasser Arafat's responsibilities - to be followed by confidence-building measures with vague talk on overcoming Israel's opposition to a settlement freeze, was not backed by any personal commitment to visit the Middle East.

Instead a team of US diplomats in the region will ferry between the parties, drawing up a practical blueprint for ending the violence, and restoring a modicum of security cooperation between the two sides.

Where will the US stand?

But what then?
US President George W Bush
Players in the Middle East are still unsure of President Bush's position

All the players are still guessing about Mr Bush's long-term view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The new president felt last year's Camp David process was misguided, but what is his vision of a just peace?

For the moment, the Administration prefers to "leave it up to the parties", but there will come a time when the Americans have to take a position on the future of Jewish settlements, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the other deeply divisive issues.

For the moment officials in Washington are deeply reluctant to contemplate that kind of involvement.

The risks of failure are deemed to be too high. But then again, as last week's surge of violence showed, the risks of watching from the wings may be even greater.

See also:

21 May 01 | Middle East
Mitchell report: Main points
21 May 01 | Middle East
Viewpoint: Death of a stonethrower
20 May 01 | Middle East
Arabs seek to isolate Israel
18 May 01 | Middle East
Sharon's tactics
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