Bush Administration Feels Its Way

If you had to pick a word to summarize the mood among American Jewish leaders as they watch the Bush administration deal with surging Israeli-Palestinian violence, it is this: uncertainty.

President George W. Bush and his foreign policy team have been sending some extraordinarily positive signals to the government in Jerusalem and some less welcome ones as well. The pattern defies simple analysis, which is why so few Jewish groups objected to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s harsh comments last week labeling Israel’s response to Palestinian mortar attacks "disproportionate and excessive."

Readers of diplomatic tea leaves are getting migraines from their close study of the evolving U.S. response to the dangerous crisis, but any conclusions about policy shifts in the region are premature. Here are some of the factors that have produced such an unclear landscape:

An incomplete administration with an incomplete agenda.

Analyzing this administration’s Mideast policy is hard because that policy has not really been formulated, except for the obvious matter of using the Washington bully pulpit to urge moderation and sometimes chastise both sides when they seem to go too far.

And the people who will make that policy are still not all in place; a number of important appointments have yet to be confirmed.

The conclusions we draw today reflect a process that is in its earliest stages; it’s part analysis, part Ouija board.

Mixed signals about the extent of U.S. involvement in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Israeli newspapers made much of the fact that Powell, in slapping Israel’s wrists last week, began a hasty retreat from the administration’s oft-stated desire to keep out of direct involvement in the troublesome Mideast.

Perhaps. But while Powell and his administration colleagues increased the level of official rhetoric, they did nothing to indicate they are prepared to get directly involved in coaxing the parties back to the table and then mediating their negotiations.

There were also reports that the administration is considering appointing a new Mideast envoy, and a few names were dropped.

But if this does happen — and it’s far from a done deal — sources here say the envoy will be far less influential than the recently retired Dennis Ross. Any new envoy will simply serve as an extension of Powell, who is said to want to put his personal time into other parts.

Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University and a leading Middle East expert, said there is a hard-to-discern line between "promiscuous overinvolvement and dangerous detachment." The Bush administration, after Bill Clinton’s hyper-activism, "is trying right now to figure out exactly where that line should be," he said.

Confusion over Bush II vs. Bush I: it’s not déjà vu all over again.

True, many policy-makers are retreads from the first Bush administration, and once again the petro-connection is likely to be a factor in foreign policy.

But two things have changed.

The current administration players are much more sophisticated when it comes to the language of the Middle East and the sensitivities of the politically important Jewish community. It’s unlikely they will repeat the political blunders that touched off a major war between Jews and the first Bush administration in 1991.

More important, the situation in the region is very different.

The administration may dislike Israel’s settlements policies, but it’s no longer possible to argue that this is the major impediment to peace in the region — not after Yasser Arafat fled Camp David in panic when he was offered more than he ever expected.

Also, there are significant voices within this administration advancing positions that sound remarkably like those of the Likud leadership. Mostly at the Pentagon, they are not the primary forces in formulating Mideast policy, but it’s hard to deny that they have an impact.

Support for Sharon will be far from automatic in the new administration, but there is a much more solid base for good relations between the two allies than there was during Bush I.

Crisis management, not long-term policy-making.

With its team not fully in place and its foreign policy still being formulated and calibrated, the Bush administration — now just 100 days old — is focusing mostly on keeping the lid on the boiling Mideast pot, not on finding new routes out of the dangerous quagmire.

Expectations are low; nobody anticipates significant progress toward a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians any time soon. The most that many here hope for is interim agreements that will quell the violence and keep the turmoil from roiling relations with other regional allies.

That’s remarkably consistent with Sharon’s goals.

But if Israeli-Palestinian violence edges toward a real war of attrition, it may spill over.

To the extent that Sharon is seen as doing everything possible to keep this from happening, he will continue to get solid support from Washington, although not a green light for unlimited military action.

But if he is seen as overreacting to Palestinian provocation in ways that seem likely to draw in neighboring states, he risks a jarring end to what still looks like a diplomatic honeymoon in his relationship with Washington.