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Bush Administration Plans to Renew Efforts for Mideast Peace

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration is preparing to advance the stalled Middle East peace effort by strengthening the moderate Palestinian leadership that it hopes will emerge with the death of Yasser Arafat, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Officials said they would focus on helping to arrange the forthcoming Palestinian Authority elections and using their influence to ensure that Israelis and Palestinians work out plans for a secure withdrawal of Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.

The administration believes that it can help solve some of the practical problems presented by the elections and can use its influence to ensure Israel’s cooperation. Successful elections would strengthen the new leadership by offering them democratic legitimacy, U.S. officials said.

They also said they believed they could encourage Israel to work with Palestinians to make sure there was no security vacuum in Gaza if the withdrawal plan proceeded.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to deal with Arafat, and the Palestinians had not participated in any planning for Sharon’s proposed pullout. But the U.S. is hoping the Palestinians’ participation in such planning will give them the sense that their government, often ineffective, can achieve results that benefit them.

At the same time, U.S. officials said that despite growing international pressure, it was still too soon to begin talks over such key issues as borders, refugees and control over Jerusalem and the holy sites.

“We still have a long way to go to see what kind of leadership actually does emerge,” a U.S. official said.

President Bush signaled his interest in a deeper engagement in the region when he said he saw an “opening for peace” with the new Palestinian leadership. He said that if the Palestinians sought its help, the United States would be “more than willing to help build the institutions necessary for a free society to emerge.”

Bush may give a further indication of his views today after he meets with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Blair, who arrived in Washington on Thursday evening, has pressed the president to make the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a top priority, and he may be expecting new American efforts given Britain’s military assistance in Iraq.

Associated Press reported that during the flight to Washington, Blair’s official spokesman told reporters that one of Britain’s goals was to revive a stalled U.S.-backed peace plan known as the “road map.”

“It’s important that we get the strategy right and then engage the players in such a way that they do not feel that we are imposing something on them, that they do not feel we are saying, ‘Take it or leave it,’ ” said the spokesman, who by custom was not identified.

Still unclear is whether Bush will name a special envoy to the region in hopes of spurring progress. Blair is believed to favor that approach. But some U.S. government officials are skeptical, believing that such an appointment will not be taken seriously unless the envoy is close to Bush and clearly has the authority to negotiate.

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The president made one important decision this week by naming Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns to represent the United States at Arafat’s funeral in Cairo today. Some critics argued that the selection of a lower-ranking official was likely to offend Palestinians and other Arabs, because many nations would send foreign ministers or heads of state.

But the selection was more than some in the administration had wanted. Some White House officials, who consider Arafat a terrorist, had argued that no official U.S. representative should attend.

Some experts contended that whatever Washington’s misgivings were about Arafat, the United States should recognize him as a symbol for his people.

Edward S. Walker Jr., who during a lengthy State Department career served as ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said that sending Burns was appropriate.

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“This is the choice I expected,” said Walker, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Dennis B. Ross, Middle East envoy for Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, said in an interview that it was important for the United States to focus on the elections “because it is the only way that you can have a legitimate leader who can make any decisions.”

Ross said that whether Bush appointed a special envoy or sent Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region, “someone has to be committed to this and has to make the effort. Someone on our side has to be prepared to put together an ongoing set of discussions.”

U.S. officials are reluctant to take steps that will indicate support for any particular Palestinian leader, because such moves can backfire and undermine the person’s public backing. But experts note that by fostering the democratic process and the Gaza withdrawal, the United States can accomplish the same goal.

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“We can bless the process. And as the new leadership comes into place, we can say to the Israelis, ‘Now you’ve got the leadership you’ve always wanted,’ ” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Another sign of Bush’s views is expected to come soon when he chooses a replacement for Burns as head of the State Department’s Bureau of Near East Affairs.

One possible replacement is Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington public policy center. She has been an outspoken advocate of the Iraq war and Israel’s interests.

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Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.


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