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U.S. not involved in Taba talks
As Bush prepares Mideast team, sides meet in Taba -- without U.S
By Matthew Berger
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 24, 2001
WASHINGTON, The United States' role in peace
negotiations has shifted from active
participant to bystander, less than 48 hours after President Bush took the
oath of office.
State Department officials downplayed the lack of American involvement
in the Israeli-Palestinian talks
now underway in Taba, Egypt. Citing other examples of negotiations that
occurred without U.S. mediation -- such
as the original Oslo breakthrough in 1993 -- these officials insist that it
does not represent a change in U.S. policy
on the peace process.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday that U.S.
officials are ``keeping in close touch
with the parties" in the Taba negotiations, though there is no U.S. official
on the ground. Instead, U.S. ambassadors
in the region are being briefed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority and
are relaying the information to
``It's important for the parties themselves to decide on and then take
steps necessary to reach agreement for
peace," Boucher said. ``The secretary has asked his ambassadors in the
to follow the situation closely, but
we're not participants in these particular talks."
The development comes as the Palestinian Authority on Monday issued a
broadside against the Clinton
administration's handling of the peace process, saying the United States had
``increasingly identified" with Israeli
positions and had relied on ``constructive ambiguity" to craft interim
agreements that denied Arab rights.
Many Israelis, in contrast, feel Clinton leaned too heavily on Israeli
governments to make concessions
without demanding corresponding Palestinian compromises. Yet the
preponderance of Jews in leading positions on
the Clinton team aroused deep suspicions in the Arab world, which regularly
portrayed the American Jewish
negotiators as Zionist sympathizers.
It is unclear exactly who will be the new administration's point man
the peace process, as Bush and
Secretary of State Colin Powell have yet to make a number of key diplomatic
appointments. Matters also have been
complicated by the resignation of Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis
Ross, who shepherded the peace process
from its inception seven years ago.
A State Department official close to the peace process said that
Assistant Secretary of State for Near
Eastern Affairs Edward Walker is taking the lead in monitoring the peace
process. Aaron Miller, who served as
Ross' deputy, is working under Walker, the official said.
That structure will continue until Powell or Bush designates new
for the peace process. It is widely
expected that Ross' position will not be filled, and that the shift of
responsibility for the negotiations to the Near
Eastern Affairs bureau will be permanent.
The official also said Powell has been working with the State
Department's Middle East team and has
outlined objectives for the peace process. He would not say if they differ
from those of the Clinton administration.
``We play different roles at different times," the officials said.
The memo, signed by the Palestinian negotiating team, said the peace
process had ``become a goal in and
of itself" and that negotiations had created ``false impressions" about the
chances of establishing a lasting peace.
Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said the memorandum was an attempt
by the Palestinians to
justify their actions during the Clinton administration.
``The Palestinians are very much aware that there is a large section"
American opinion ``who are very
concerned about the Palestinians not being able to pick up the ball that was
given to them by Prime Minister Barak,"
The State Department said it had no comment on the memo.
Boucher said the United States was not invited to participate in the
Taba talks. In the past, the United
States either was invited to participate in high-level talks or asked to
Given the change of administration over the weekend, the parties may
have been hesitant to ask for U.S.
aid while the government is in flux, commentators suggested.
``There's an awareness that we are in transition and the United States
doesn't have a team together," said
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy. ``We need to be cautious about
extrapolating that this is what the next four years will look like."
State Department officials emphasized that the United States is willing
to play a role, if the parties request.
``This confirms, yet again, that it is the Israelis and the
that are pushing this forward, not the
Americans," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.
Pipes said there is an inherent reluctance among presidents to get
involved in the Middle East so soon into
a new administration, but almost every president in the last 30 years
eventually has gravitated toward the region.
``It will take Bush time to get up to speed,'' Pipes said.
With many appointments still unfilled, career service officers have
temporarily taken over leadership roles,
while holdouts from the Clinton administration -- like Walker -- will remain
until they are replaced.
In his welcoming remarks to State Department staffers, Powell said
Monday that he is interested in relying
on foreign service officers for senior positions, and said he hopes for some
consistency in the office during the
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.