Is Mideast politics poison in presidential race Not this time

washington | It’s conventional wisdom: In an election year, keep away from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Middle East helped drive incumbent Presidents Carter and Bush out of office, and President Clinton’s intense last-ditch efforts at the end of his term didn’t help candidate Al Gore.

Like much conventional wisdom, there’s a grain of truth to the maxim. After all, the Middle East is unstable enough to enable the kind of October surprise that could scuttle a presidential bid.

Yet it is that instability that now is driving the Bush administration to turn the conventional wisdom on its head.

With the prospect of Palestinian-populated areas imploding — and the potential for spillover into U.S. efforts in Iraq, not to mention the U.S. presidential race — the Bush administration is renewing its efforts to bring peacemaking in the region forward.

“We fully understand that this conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is the source of a great deal of the anti-American feelings that exist in that part of the world and does affect what we’re doing in Iraq,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate earlier this month. “And I would do anything to find a magic bullet to solve this one.”

Three of President Bush’s most trusted advisers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict went to Israel last week to make sure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hews to U.S. guidelines in his efforts to disengage from the Palestinians.

The envoys’ Israeli counterparts will soon come to Washington to refine Sharon’s disengagement plan, which includes a settlement withdrawal from Gaza. A Bush-Sharon summit is expected to follow after that, though a date has not been set.

When the three envoys met with their Israeli partners, they were embarassed to hear that Israel had little to report.

“It is difficult for us to achieve this goal and to put this kind of pressure on the Israeli side as long as terrorism is seen as a legitimate political act on the part of Palestinians,” Powell told a Princeton University gathering last Friday. “It is not — it can’t be, not in this post-9/11 age.”

That outlook encourages Israelis to believe that they have time to work things out. The problem is that the Americans need progress by June 30, when Bush wants to transfer power in Iraq to an Iraqi provisional government. The United States is seeking Arab, European and U.N. support ahead of the transfer, and progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would help.

Consequently, a senior administration official said, the pace of U.S. consultations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is unlikely to flag, because the Americans want results.

One sign of the administration’s dissatisfaction with the current stalemate came when Burns used his visit to make America’s case to the Palestinians. The Israelis had expected an exclusive U.S.-Israel dialogue.

Another factor spurring U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the danger inherent in any unilateral action, such as an Israeli pullout from Gaza.

If the Israelis pull out earlier than expected and the Gaza Strip implode into a civil war, it could scuttle whatever credibility the Bush administration has in the region — another incentive for Americans to stay involved in the process.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.