The Bush administration is defending its handling of Middle East peace efforts, in the wake of calls by a visiting senior Egyptian official for the United States to intervene more aggressively to stop the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Osama El-Baz, the top foreign policy adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meets Secretary of State Colin Powell Friday.
Administration officials do not want to be drawn into a public fight with Mr. El-Baz. But they also insist there is little more the United States can do to end the Middle East violence, which has been raging for more than ten months.
The Egyptian presidential aide, who has held a series of meetings with White House and State Department officials, told reporters Thursday the U.S. argument that the situation should be left to the parties has failed, and led to what he termed a "disaster" that is threatening broader upheaval in the region.
Mr. El-Baz urged a more forceful administration role, including the dispatch of a U.S. monitoring force to try to revive a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians.
At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said he would not address the El-Baz comments before Secretary Powell has met with him but he insisted the administration role in the area has been active.
"We're deeply engaged in the process, trying to find bridges to cross the divides that have existed for so many years, and have become especially severe in recent months," added Mr. El-Baz. "We're working with both sides, talking to leaders of the international community, in close contact with both sides the Israelis and Palestinians trying to find ways that we can restore a sense of trust and confidence between the two sides, in the hope of finding a lasting permanent solution. The Mitchell committee has provided the parties a roadmap, which they've embraced. And they need to find the will to set out upon that path, using that roadmap."
Mr. Reeker said a monitoring force could be useful as a prelude to implementation of the Mitchell plan, but only if both sides want it. He said attempts from outside to force a solution on the parties will only frustrate efforts to move forward, and said that includes Palestinian-led efforts this week to get the U.N. Security Council to intervene in the crisis.
The four-day Washington visit by Mr. El-Baz, a key figure in the Cairo government for more than two decades, underlines growing Egyptian concern about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his breakfast talk with reporters, he noted that the fighting is fueling extremism on both sides and posing a threat to the broader region. Mr. El-Baz also said American observers would run no real risks to their safety, but said, if the administration declines, a force could be made up of Canadians and Europeans.
The plan by the panel headed by former U.S. Senate Majority leader George Mitchell envisages an observer force, and confidence-building steps by the parties, leading to a restoration of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.