The White House, seeking to take advantage of the diplomatic opening created by Yasser Arafat's death, is prepared to consider a British proposal that President Bush appoint a special Middle East envoy to shepherd the peace process, administration officials said yesterday.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who arrived here yesterday and ate dinner privately with Bush last night, has said he hopes to prod the White House into becoming more engaged in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. U.S. officials said they have an open mind about the idea of a special envoy, which would be a departure for an administration that has generally shunned such diplomatic assignments.
"We will certainly listen very carefully to what they have to say," said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the formal Bush-Blair discussions are to be held today.
Another official involved in the administration's deliberations said the concept of an envoy will work only if the administration decides to give the person real authority. He said the administration could opt for what he called the "James Baker" model, a hard-nosed negotiator like the former secretary of state who forces both sides to confront uncomfortable truths. Or, he said, if the administration were less ambitious, it might accept a "George Mitchell" model, referring to the former Senate majority leader who wrote a report on cooling down the conflict that gained little traction.
In his first term Bush promoted the idea of an independent Palestinian state, but in contrast to President Bill Clinton he generally avoided robust efforts to resolve the conflict.
More broadly, administration officials said yesterday that they want to seize on the opening provided by Arafat's death, both to make progress and to show that Bush is trying. But these officials said they are being extremely cautious about what they say publicly because they do not want to hurt the chances of moderates among the potential Palestinian leaders by making them look like the candidates of the United States.
Another White House official said that the Middle East is a priority for Bush's second term and that the president and Blair will discuss ways "we can accelerate the process and take advantage of the opportunity of Arafat's passing." But the official cautioned that the administration "will also be patient," watching the Palestinians over the next few weeks to avoid "acting too assertively or too precipitously."
"You can move too quickly and embrace too hard and hurt the process, and that's the last thing we want to do," the official added. "It is critical that we allow the new Palestinian leadership to emerge. You don't want to quickly embrace a leader who has not established his own credibility with the Palestinian people."
A fourth official said Arafat's death is "an opportunity" because he "had become an obstacle not just in our eyes but in Arab eyes." He said that the emerging Palestinian leaders had taken the right initial steps but that they need to show they can get control of Arafat's multiple security forces and arrange a meaningful cease-fire in the terrorist campaign against Israel.
A huge problem the new leaders face is the emergence of individual cells of militants, financed largely by Iran, who appear to lie outside the control of traditional Palestinian groups. "This is a dangerous and serious phenomenon," this official said.
Sean McCormack, the National Security Council spokesman, called it "a time of mourning for the Palestinian people" and said he would not comment on how Arafat's death changed the diplomatic landscape "out of respect for them."
Privately, administration officials made it clear that Bush will keep the onus on the Palestinians, saying that the United States cannot impose a desire for peace on them if they do not want it themselves.
Still, officials said, a renewed push to make progress on Mideast peace carries the potential of altering the extremely close relationship between Israel and the United States in Bush's first term. The shunning of the Palestinian leadership during most of Bush's tenure left the field open for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to help shape U.S. policy. So the emergence of a new player at the table could mean additional pressure on Israel, since Palestinians could force debate on issues that have been largely ignored in recent years, officials said.
One factor weighing on administration officials is the sense that they did not energetically support Mahmoud Abbas, when he served briefly as prime minister in 2003 under Arafat. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, became leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization after Arafat's death. His resignation as prime minister after three difficult months helped stall the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map."
"We all failed with Abu Mazen. Not enough was done by the international community, by us and by Israel," an administration official said. "This is another opportunity to see if we can do it differently."
In the first week of December, Palestinian, U.S., Israeli and European officials are scheduled to meet in Oslo to discuss Palestinian reform, giving a showcase for the new Palestinian leaders and an opening for Israel and other parties to demonstrate support.
While Bush and Blair will take questions from reporters today, officials indicated there will not be any major announcements resulting from their talks.
Officials said Bush received a positive response from the Arab world to his off-the-cuff remark last week when a reporter incorrectly told him Arafat had died. Bush said, "God bless his soul," focusing the comment on Arafat the man rather than on the political situation.