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US steps back from role as Mideast arbiter

Bush hosts Jordan's king today, but so far he is resisting pleas for US intercession.

The Bush administration, in what looks to be a major US policy shift, is increasingly clear that it is unwilling to continue acting as sole arbiter of Middle East peace.

Instead, the new president and his team are insisting that Israelis and Palestinians do more of the negotiating on their own - and that other nations, especially moderate Arab countries, step in to a greater degree.

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The emerging strategy is a marked contrast to the United States' approach of the past decade, when American presidents were personally engaged as go-between, host, and chief cajoler - and it is not without its own set of risks.

Besides the possible drawback of diminished American prestige in the region, the Bush strategy raises the likelihood that countries with disparate agendas - from Russia to the Europeans - will become players there. There's even the risk of an intensified Israeli-Palestinian war, in the absence of steady US pressure to defuse tensions.

But the Bush team insists that in the Mideast - as in other world trouble spots - outside agents can't construct a lasting peace, they can only help.

Meeting King Abdullah

When Jordan's King Abdullah arrives at the White House today, he's expected to plead for more, not less, US help in stopping the current violence. But, observers say, he's not likely to prevail any time soon. "Given the situation on the ground - and given that the Bush administration is still in transition - they're not anxious to get into a situation without much probability of success," says Shibley Telhami, a politics professor at the University of Maryland.

Gunfights between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers continued yesterday while the two sides tried but failed to set up a meeting of security chiefs to quell the violence.

King Abdullah and other Arab leaders argue that this situation requires the US to step in. If it doesn't, they say, the violence not only may intensify, but Arab public opinion will also turn more resolutely against Israel and against any Arab leaders -such as Abdullah - who try to assist in the peace process.

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But the Bush team has little incentive to act.

President Clinton got burned politically last July at failed Camp David talks, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused what many characterized as a far-reaching peace offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Last week at the White House, when Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak made a similar plea for US action, it was rejected - and a senior official reportedly told him, in a stern tone, that the US is not prepared to help.

Most observers acknowledge that Israeli- Palestinian relations are in an especially tough period, and that Bush is justified in scaling back the US role. But many argue something has to be done.

"If the violence explodes, it's going to hurt American interests" in the oil-rich region, "and it could impact on the US ability to sell its policy on containing Iraq," says Professor Telhami.

For now, Bush is encouraging Egypt and Jordan to lobby Mr. Arafat to stop the violence.

"We very much see a larger role for the players directly in the region, in order to try to create the atmosphere and the foundation in which we try to bring about a restoring of calm and rebuilding of confidence and security cooperation," says a senior administration official.

But both President Mubarak and King Abdullah face internal resistance to their efforts to pressure Arafat.

"Abdullah is a man who's on the edge of desperation," says Michael Hudson, an international relations professor at Georgetown University here. The large population of Palestinians in Jordan - and the nation's weak economy - make for boiling anti-Israeli sentiment that saps his ability to push Arafat for calm.

In the absence of action from other Arab countries, outsiders are already stepping in. Last week, Russia's President Vladimir Putin said he will go to the Mideast on a peacemaking mission and has invited Mubarak and Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara to visit Moscow.

Such interventions don't always sit well with the US. In 1993, when Norway secretly helped construct the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, the US was miffed about not being included at first.

US is entrenched

Analysts agree that, ultimately, the US must be involved in final peace negotiations. After 50 years of deep US involvement in the region - including billions of dollars of Mideast aid - "all the political alliances and relationships in the region are built around US influence," says Telhami.

"There's no individual in the world more capable of getting an Israeli prime minister to think twice than a president of the US," adds William Quandt, a University of Virginia professor who helped President Carter negotiate the original Camp David accords in 1978.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor