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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 03:45 GMT
Analysis: New US caution over Mid-East
George W Bush
Bush has a "hands off" approach to the Middle East
By Nick Bryant in Washington

Since taking office, the Bush administration has approached the problems of the Middle East with reserve - and it is adopting the same "wait and see" policy following the victory of Ariel Sharon.

Officials here want to see what kind of government emerges in Israel - and how long it will last - before deciding what the precise role of the United States should be.

The peace process will not be America's number one foreign policy objective, as it was during the Clinton years

Statements from the White House and State Department have been vague and generalised. A clear policy towards the Middle East has yet to be articulated.

That was evident in last night's White House statement, the first official reaction to the victory of Ariel Sharon.

There were the traditional assertions about the "special relationship" between Israel and the United States - "rock solid" was how bilateral relations were described. Similarly, there was the usual commitment towards the country's security.

In a five-minute phone conversation with the new Israeli prime minister-elect, President Bush said he looked forward to working with him towards "peace and stabilty" in the region. Officials would not say whether they moved beyond such banalities.

Prior to the result being announced, a deeper insight into current US thinking was provided by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In announcing a visit to the region before the end of the month, he signalled America's willingness to resume its traditional role, mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Iran and Iraq take precedence

But he also stressed that the problems of the Middle East had to be viewed in a wider, regional context - a clear implication that the peace process would not be America's number one foreign policy objective, as it was during the Clinton years.

The truth is Iran and Iraq are likely to take precedence, at least for the time-being.

The fact that President Bush has yet to speak to the Palestinian leader Yassar Afrafat - 18 days after taking office - is a clear sign of the change in approach.

It is significant, too, that no replacement has yet been found for Dennis Ross, who left the State Department on Friday after 12 years as America's Middle East peace envoy.

Neither has CIA director George Tenet continued his shuttle diplomacy - a feature of President Clinton's last months in office - aimed at reducing tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians on the ground.

Fear of escalation

The fear of an escalation of hostilities is real. Mr Powell said that efforts should be made "to make sure that violence doesn't start to swell up again, to make sure that we don't have provocations when then lead to counterprovocations, and the cycle of violence begins".

The central aim of the Clinton administration's foreign policy - to deliver a comprehensive Middle East settlement - has been replaced by caution and circumspection.

In a farewell interview, Mr Ross spoke of what he called a new reality: "An Israeli government that says it cannot conclude a permanent deal now. The Palestinians have said the same. So you have to scale back what is possible."

Already, the Bush administration is acting on his advice.

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