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Mubarak Visit Points Up Dilemma in US Mideast Policy - 2002-03-07

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak met with U.S. President George Bush and other U.S. officials this week, in a bid to revive the battered Mideast peace process. The effort comes amid a surge of violence that has left more than 200 Israelis and Palestinians dead or wounded in the past two weeks. There are few signs the bloodshed will end any time soon.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reflected the level of concern among Arab neighbors in a speech in Washington Tuesday. "The difficulty is not in the vision of peace, but in achieving it," he said. "We want an end to the cycle of violence and the climate of fear."

Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and continues to play an active role in the peace process.

President Mubarak was in Washington to urge the U.S. administration to take a more active role in getting the Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table. "We have to do whatever we can with the administration here to bring the two parties together," he said. "They should sit whether they like it or not. We have to find the solution. We have to break the vicious circle and sit and change views with the help of the U.S. and Egypt and other countries favoring that. There is no other way."

The Bush administration has been criticized for its hands-off policy. But analysts say the dilemma of U.S. involvement is that it means something different to Israelis and Palestinians.

Mark Heller is a Research Associate at Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. He says Palestinians want Washington to pressure Israel to ends its occupation of Palestinian-held territories.

But, according to Mr. Heller, Israel is looking for something else. "I think what Israel is looking for from the American administration is some kind of coordination on policies and behavior that the Israeli government will take in response to the situation," he said.

For now President Bush echoes Israel's position that peace talks cannot resume until the violence ends. And he calls for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to do more to stop the attacks against Israelis. But Secretary of State Colin Powell also says Mr. Sharon should reconsider his policy of waging war on the Palestinians.

Former U.S. State Department official Joseph Sisco says Ariel Sharon's hardline policy has backfired. Mr. Sisco has a long history of involvement in Mideast peace efforts.

"The Israelis and Sharon too understand that one of the things you would find in Israel now is surprise at how much resistance there continues to be and how costly the Palestinians are making it for the Israelis," he said.

President Mubarak also warns that Israel's campaign to discredit Yasser Arafat is a dangerous game. "If Arafat disappeared for one reason or another, I tell you, it would be a state of disorder," he said.

With the peace process in tatters, many diplomats have seized on Saudi Arabia's land-for-peace initiative as a fresh way to get the peace process back on track.

It envisions normalizing relations with Israel if Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza, which it seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Crown Prince Abdullah is expected to present the proposal at the Arab summit later this month. The plan also calls for the right of return for millions of Palestinians forced to leave their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, something Israel has rejected in the past.

Former U.S. diplomat Joseph Sisco says the Saudi proposal responds to one of Israel's top priorities, security, and could represent a turning point in Israel's relations with its Arab neighbors.

"The initiative takes on much greater importance not only because of the violence and counter-violence and no way to stop it but it is significant in and of itself that Saudi Arabia has signaled it intends to play an important role," said Mr. Sisco.

Mr. Mubarak has asked Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat to meet and discuss the proposal but they have not accepted his invitation. Since Mr. Sharon was elected Prime Minister last year he has not met Mr. Arafat and refuses to talk peace with the Palestinian leader as long as the violence continues.