By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/25/2005 6:42:44 PM ET 2005-05-25T22:42:44

For the first time since the Clinton administration, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are in Washington during the same week advancing their particular perspectives on how and when a solution to the bloody and burdensome Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be possible.

President Bush will welcome Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to the White House  Thursday, ending a long freeze on such ties that ended only with the death of Yasser Arafat in November. But there will be no White House meeting for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“There was a sense that this just wasn’t the optimal time for the two men to meet,” explains a State Department official. “They met in Crawford [Texas] just last month and so there wasn’t a pressing need for another meeting. You shouldn’t read into it.”

In fact, both Israeli and Arab diplomats are doing just that, pointing to a separate meeting last month between Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in Crawford, where the Saudis reportedly requested that the White House “clear the decks,” in the words of one of the Israeli source, for Abbas’ visit.

“This is a serious, important moment for Abbas and for the Palestinians,” the Israeli diplomat said. “Abbas is weak, challenged by Hamas in the upcoming legislative elections, and even being challenged inside [his own party] Fatah. Both Israel and you guys want this guy to succeed, we worry we’ll be dealing with a Hamas government if he doesn’t. So if getting Sharon out of Dodge helps that along, so be it.”

A senior administration official involved in Middle East policy, speaking on condition of anonymity, was unaware of any Saudi intervention on the timing of Sharon's visit.

New pressures
In Washington Tuesday, Sharon told AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israeli lobbying group, "I appreciate Chairman Abbas' decision to condemn violence and terrorism. With this approach, it can be a partner in implementing the [internationally-brokered] road map and to move the process forward. But his statement must be translated into real actions on the ground."

Sharon also said Israel would release another 400 Palestinians held in its prisons as a good faith gesture upon his return.

That is precisely the kind of action the Bush administration favors, says Dan Dorfman, an Israeli diplomat based in New York. He and other Israelis say they have noticed a gradual shift in the Bush administration’s policies back toward a more even-handed approach that was predominant in the Clinton years.

“I don’t know how deep it goes, but there has been a shift, in large part because in the Iraqi theater, the U.S. needs for us to play ball, to lay low, in order for U.S. policy to work,” says Dorfman. He says it is natural at this point that the United States is demanding progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track as it seeks to dispel the notion in the Arab world that American policy is hopelessly slanted toward Israel.

“Left to our own, we might not be so eager to take steps like handing back control of certain West Bank cities to Abbas’ security forces, or to open, as we have, negotiations with Egypt on the Sinai,” says Dorfman. Israel has had talks with Cairo about allowing the Egyptian military to patrol parts of the Sinai, which was demilitarized by the 1979 Camp David accords. That might address some of Israel's concerns about arms smuggling into Gaza.

‘A longer view’
These subtle new pressures on Israel, U.S. officials say, reflect a desire in the Bush second term to begin to address some of the underlying causes of the hatred directed at the United States in the Islamic world, as well as some practical realities that grow out of the wars in Iraq and against al Qaida and the surging price of energy.

“You can deter rogue nations and stand and fight when that is necessary in some other cases, but you also need to take a longer view about such a conflict,” says a Bush administration foreign policy advisor on Middle East policy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The longer view includes making it clear that the United States wants the Palestinian people to have a state, a democratic state, and that the United States wants the Islamic world to enjoy the fruits of democracy. We think that’s the long-term way to guarantee peace because democracies just don’t tend to attack other democracies.” 

In Israel, some believe this shift will become more pronounced if the current cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the slow moves back toward negotiations as a means of settling the conflict collapse in a new round of violence. Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister, says a new round of violence will exasperate a Bush administration and severely strain ties with Israel now that Washington has more pressing priorities in the Middle East since 9/11.

“Only then, with Europe against us and America not with us and internal unity crumbling, will Sharon get it,” Barak said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz last Thursday. “Suddenly he will see the light. He will see what anyone with eyes in his head can see now. But then, after hundreds have been killed and billions of shekels lost and after an internal rift, we will no longer succeed in preserving all the large settlement blocs inside Israel. At the end of the great shortcut, we'll find ourselves withdrawing to a line that is worse than the line to which we could withdraw now. We will find ourselves on a line that is very close to the Green Line" -- a reference to the Israeli frontiers that existed before its seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights in 1967.

More even-handed?
The willingness to differ in public has been on display recently. During their April meeting, Bush noted his differences with Sharon, specifically on the prime minister's plan to expand West Bank settlements. Referring to the plan, concocted in part to mollify the right wing of his party angry about the Gaza withdrawal,  Bush said: "I told the prime minister not to undertake any activity that contravenes" the road map that the U.S., Europe, Israel, the Palestinians and many Arab governments have endorsed. "Israel has obligations under the road map. The road map clearly says no expansion of settlements.”

Alternatively, Bush's April 25 meeting with the Crown Prince in Crawford featured important concessions to the Saudis -- including easing of travel restrictions dating to 9/11 and praise for modest recent reforms allowing Saudi legislative elections, plus a noticable lack of criticism on issues of human rights.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, in post-meeting discussions with reporters, would not comment on whether the president had raised human rights issues, including the imprisonment of Saudi dissidents who called for a constitutional monarchy.

"They are in a position of power here now," says Dorfman, the Israeli diplomat. "They realize as long as oil prices are skyrocketing, they have a very strong hand to play."

The emphasis on even-handedness is apparent even before audiences of Israel’s supporters. On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to the most powerful Israeli lobbying group in Washington, AIPAC, got a round of applause for noting that Abbas will find the president insistent that he continue to root out terrorism in the Palestinian Territories and cooperate with Israel to prevent attacks.

"The president will be clear that there are commitments to be met, that there goals to be met," she said.

Arab diplomats say Abbas will be looking for assurances from Bush that he will use U.S. resources to mitigate Israeli complaints about continued arms smuggling or perceived laxity on terrorism, which the Palestinian leader says he is moving against as quickly as is politically possible. Abbas will also seek American aid, diplomats say, in securing Israeli withdrawals from other West Bank cities that the Israeli military reoccupied when renewed violence destroyed the Oslo peace process in 2001.

Still, a senior Bush administration official cautioned that it would be wrong to interpret the willingness of the president to lend such support as a major shift in policy. “Everyone here, I’m sure, would claim we’ve been even handed all along,” says the official.

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