Bush Laying Plans for Broad Mideast Peace : Diplomacy: The President hopes to use the allied victory to forge a comprehensive settlement of long-intractable issues that have plagued the region, top officials say.
President Bush intends to use his victory in the Gulf War as the foundation for an ambitious attempt to forge a comprehensive new order in the Middle East, including agreements on arms control and peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, top Administration officials said Saturday.
And, in an unusual gambit, the President plans to seek rapid, “multiple-track” negotiations on a range of issues, instead of the traditional step-by-step process that bogged earlier U.S. efforts in diplomatic quagmires, the officials said. One early target would be peace between Israel and Syria, long the Jewish state’s most implacable enemy.
“What the President wants is an overall solution,” said White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu. “I don’t think he’s as much interested in interim steps.”
Another official observed: “There’s a window of opportunity now. We need some active diplomacy to keep the window open and, hopefully, to widen it.”
The war has changed the political landscape of the Middle East, he said, in part by putting Israel, Syria and Egypt on the same side in a crisis. And Israel may now be more willing to give up occupied Arab lands in exchange for peace because Iraq’s Scud missile attacks showed “that territory is not synonymous with security,” he added.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III’s trip to the Middle East this week is intended to lead to a round robin of negotiations that will cut through the region’s many deadlocks by offering something to everyone, the Administration officials said.
Peace between Israel and Syria would be based on a return of a demilitarized Golan Heights to Damascus’ control. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians could follow, once Palestinians recognize that “the train is leaving the station,” in the words of one official.
But the process is fraught with pitfalls--every previous U.S. attempt to fashion a comprehensive peace settlement has failed--so the Administration is deliberately holding off on constructing anything that might be called a “Bush Plan.”
“This trip Jim Baker’s about to take is a genuine consultation, because we don’t have our minds cast in cement,” a White House official said. “We’re deciding exactly how much we want to suggest as well as listen. . . . It’s something we’re still calculating.”
Bush, in his news conference on Friday, said he is particularly interested in solving three questions in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problem of Lebanon and the future of Iraq. “I want to move fast, and I want to go forward,” he said.
Asked whether he favors an international conference on the issues, Bush said Baker will discuss that idea--but also will pursue the possibility of what the President called “some bolder, new idea.”
That appeared to be a reference to a menu of new options that senior officials have been working on for weeks, reportedly including the idea of launching several sets of simultaneous negotiations, with the United States as a go-between.
Among the issues officials have been debating is whether any negotiations should tackle the thorny Palestinian issue first, or whether Israeli-Arab talks on issues such as arms control and water resources could be launched first to build confidence among the area’s longtime rivals.
The second alternative, one official said, “is the peace process through the back door. . . . It’s moving away from some of these questions of territory and security and political relations, and it’s trying to say, ‘Maybe we can work together on some of these other issues, and maybe that can lead to a certain confidence, a certain momentum.’ ”
But many officials are skeptical, arguing that Arab governments will insist that solving the Palestinian question must be at the center of any negotiations. “My hunch is you’re going to have more progress on things like water after you have some political progress,” said one.
A second, related issue is whether negotiations must include representatives of the Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation, or whether talks could begin between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but without the Palestinians.
“I think we all feel pretty strongly that there’s got to be a dual track--state to state as well as Palestinian,” an official said. “It would be like a one-legged ladder; it wouldn’t hold without it. You’ve got to deal with both. Syria, which is the key state right now which has a territorial dispute with Israel, will not agree to a separate peace” without the Palestinians.
Sununu, interviewed on Cable News Network’s “Evans and Novak” program, said the “tough part” of launching any negotiations would be finding representatives of the Palestinians who are willing to negotiate. The Bush Administration and its Arab allies have condemned the Palestine Liberation Organization for supporting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the war.
“You have to negotiate and work with a group that has credibility not only with the Palestinians, but with the rest of the Arab world,” Sununu said. “Whether that can continue to be (PLO chief Yasser) Arafat or not, I can’t tell you.”
In the past, Israel has insisted that state-to-state negotiations must come first--and then, only after the Arab countries explicitly recognized the nation of Israel.
But officials said they hope one result of the war might be a willingness on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to relax those demands in the interest of a process that could produce a more peaceful and stable region.
A key part of that process, officials said, would be early movement toward easing tensions between Israel and Syria, Jerusalem’s most hostile neighbor, through an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967.
“Nothing is ever easy in the Middle East, but the Golan Heights might be easier than some other things,” one official said. “While it’s strategically important, it’s not, if you will, theologically important. You don’t have the same passion about the Golan Heights as you do about the West Bank,” which includes dozens of ancient Jewish sites, as well as a much larger Arab population.
Another key step would be convincing both Israel and the Arabs that they have an interest in arms-control negotiations to reduce the danger of ballistic missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Both Shamir and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have proposed talks on those issues, officials noted. “In principle, there ought to be some predisposition (among the Middle Eastern states) to save resources and to prevent one’s neighbors from gaining the means to blow you to smithereens,” the official said.
The Administration’s hope, he said, is that by expanding the range of talks to include arms control and water, as well as the Palestinian question and mutual security, Israel and the Arabs will find new ways to strike deals.
“The more issues you throw into the hopper, on one level they make things more complex,” he said. “On the other hand . . . it also gives you greater potential for trade-offs.
“You can put something on the ledger here, take it away there,” the official explained. “As a diplomat, it gives you more tools.”
The approach will be a departure for Bush and Baker, who spent more than a year trying to cajole Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks, with no success.
The last President to attempt a full-scale, comprehensive solution of the Middle East’s problems was Jimmy Carter in 1977. His initial efforts failed too. But they led indirectly to the Camp David talks between Israel and Egypt that produced a groundbreaking peace treaty.
Times staff writer David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.