Laying Out Markers

The Bush administration, determined to scale back U.S. Mideast involvement, is being drawn into the seething center of the conflict as Israeli-Palestinian confrontations rage.

But President George W. Bush and his foreign policy team, anxious to avoid the overinvolvement of their predecessors, are carefully calibrating their Mideast policies and pronouncements. The goal, according to sources here, is to make better use of the bully pulpit in Washington, while steering clear of day-to-day mediation.

So far, at least, the primary target of the administration’s barbs has been Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — although Jewish leaders warn that this should not be seen as a green light for harsher Israeli retaliation.

The new, plain-speaking approach to Mideast diplomacy was increasingly evident this week as the administration tried to halt the worsening violence without jumping directly into the fray.

On Monday, U.S. officials expressed alarm at the killing of five Palestinian policemen. But in a CNN interview, Secretary of State Colin Powell also slammed Arafat for promising that Israel would pay a steep price for the roadside killings.

"That kind of language I don’t think is very helpful, especially during the time Israel is celebrating its anniversary," Powell said.

In the same interview, the secretary brought up an idea pro-Israel activists here had hoped not to hear — linkage between the worsening Israeli-Palestinian situation and other U.S. foreign policy priorities.

Asked if the new intifada was affecting his ability to bolster U.S. Iraq policy, he answered that "it has made it much more difficult."

The danger of widening diplomatic repercussions means that Washington is "gradually being pulled into an ever-more-intense involvement in the region," said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The inexorable pull of the crisis, he said, is taking place before the new administration’s policies and personnel are fully in place.

The outlines of that new policy are becoming apparent.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration’s evolving policy is shaped largely by its desire to avoid what many see as mistakes made by the last administration.

"One of the lessons [the Bush administration] feels it’s learned from the Clinton policies is the price that is paid when the administration muffles its objections to policies and actions of the two parties," he said. "The net effect is an explosion down the road."

The Clinton administration held its fire when the Palestinians violated earlier agreements and when Israel took actions that inflamed Palestinian opinion, he said.

"That enabled the gaps between the two parties to widen. Both [Israeli and Palestinian] leaders were able tell their publics radically different things; what was missing was a third party that was doing correctives all the time," he said.

Providing such correctives through public and private statements is emerging as a central element in the Bush administration’s approach to the Middle East.

"It’s not evenhandedness for the sake of evenhandedness; it’s calling things like they see them, and not sweeping things under the rug for the sake of ‘the process,’" said an official with a major Jewish group here. "That’s a profound shift that is sometimes going to make our community happy and sometimes angry."

So far, at least, Jewish leaders have been supportive of the administration policy shift — in part because they welcome the new willingness to sharply criticize Palestinian actions.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that many leaders in the umbrella group were concerned about Powell’s recent criticism of Israel’s military incursions into Gaza.

But in general, he said, "what we’ve seen from the White House has been pretty reassuring. It appears they are not trying to pressure Israel; they have been very strong in assigning blame for the violence on the Palestinians. And they have been clear that they will not invite Arafat to the White House while the violence continues."

A key measure of how this policy shift will impact U.S.-Israel relations could come next week when the administration formally responds to the Mitchell Commission report, which examined the causes of the new violence and offered sweeping — and controversial — recommendations for ending it.

Next week, Powell is expected to reveal the detailed U.S. position on the report — which included a recommendation for a complete settlement freeze in return for an end to violence by the Palestinians — in an official letter to Mitchell.

"The response to the report will be an important indication of how they are defining their role," said the ADL’s Jess Hordes. "Do they endorse the whole report or only some of the elements? And will they include a settlement freeze as part of their basic approach?"

Hordes, like many other Jewish leaders, believes the Mitchell report went too far by making recommendations about an issue — settlements — that was not part of earlier agreements.

But most observers believe the secretary will use the report as ammunition for new assessments about both sides — but not as the centerpiece of a major new U.S. initiative.