The Bush Administration, groping for ways to jump-start the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process, begins six weeks of high-level Middle East diplomacy Monday when Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens visits the White House and State Department.
By mid-April, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir are expected to have followed Arens to Washington for talks that Administration officials describe as the culmination of President Bush’s comprehensive review of Middle East policy.
In contrast to the usual superpower technique of spelling out a comprehensive plan and then trying to drum up support for it, Administration officials say Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III intend to sound out the Arabs and Israelis before formulating their own approach to the festering conflict.
“We will be listening, we will be discussing, we want to hear from them,” an Administration official said. “We are not locked into anything. I don’t anticipate any rapid decisions being made.”
Nevertheless, the outlines of the new policy have begun to emerge. According to Administration and diplomatic sources, Bush hopes to nudge the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization toward some sort of peace, papering over generations of bitter hostility. But with Shamir and his government steadfastly refusing even to talk to the PLO, it will not be an easy thing to do.
“Peace in the Middle East will come only from direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” Baker said recently.
Administration officials say Baker will encourage Israel to open a dialogue with Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Standing alone, that is nothing new.
Israel has been ready for a decade or more to negotiate with residents of the occupied territories. But the talks have been blocked by an impenetrable Catch 22: Palestinian residents refuse to negotiate with Israel because they insist the Israelis should talk to the PLO--and Israel refuses to have anything to do with members of the PLO.
Baker hopes to finesse the impasse by using the recently begun U.S. government dialogue with the PLO. According to a well-informed source, the Administration hopes to satisfy the PLO’s demand for participation in the peace process by having U.S. diplomats carry messages between Jerusalem and PLO headquarters in Tunis. At the same time, this source said, Baker envisions direct talks between Israeli officials and pro-PLO residents of the occupied territories.
“It involves a lot of smoke and mirrors,” said the source who enjoys a close relationship with the Israeli government.
A more apt analogy might be a house of cards because the strategy is so precariously balanced between the bitter foes. If the PLO is not satisfied with the arrangement, it could effectively prevent Palestinians with any stature from talking with Israel, rendering the talks useless even in the unlikely event they would begin at all. On the other hand, Israel refuses to deal with the PLO and the Israeli government could be expected to balk at any process which it interprets as enhancing the prestige of the PLO. Either Israel or the PLO could destroy the plan.
Israel objected strongly when then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz initiated the U.S. dialogue with the PLO after PLO leader Yasser Arafat publicly acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism. The Shamir government has consistently urged Washington to break off the talks.
But Baker is determined to continue the talks.
“My view is the dialogue should continue,” said a senior State Department official who is thoroughly familiar with Baker’s thinking. “It is important.”
Another State Department official said the dialogue, conducted on the U.S. side by Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., the ambassador to Tunisia, has not yet touched on substantive issues because the PLO has put forward nothing but “rhetoric and slogans.”
However, it was learned that the Administration plans to instruct Pelletreau to conduct another meeting with PLO representatives later this month to discuss the results of the Washington visit of the Israeli foreign minister.
Arens meets Monday with Baker, Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle and White House National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he will confer with members of Congress before leaving for New York on his way back to Israel.
Shortly after Bush took office in January, U.S. officials passed word to Israel, Egypt and Jordan that Washington was interested in hearing any new ideas they might have for advancing the peace process. There had been speculation that Arens might bring Israel’s response. However, an Israeli source said that Jerusalem will produce no formal plan until Shamir visits Washington next month.
Shamir has already made it clear that his peace proposal will be built on the autonomy formula of the 1978 Camp David conference. The Palestinians and all other Arab parties except Egypt have already rejected that idea.
Some non-government experts in Middle East policy are skeptical of the Baker strategy because it is vulnerable to the region’s historic animosities.
“They are wedded to an extreme gradualist approach which ultimately I don’t think will work,” said William B. Quandt, a former National Security Council staff member now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The Middle East doesn’t respond to such fine tuning.”
Nor has it responded to subtle programs like the one Baker is trying to formulate.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this story.