Arabs Pressure Rice On U.S. Peace Efforts

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

CAIRO, Oct. 3 -- The Bush administration's effort to foster a bloc of moderate Arab states to stand against growing militancy in the Middle East has come up against a brick wall, with several close U.S. allies bluntly telling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday that they do not want to be pitted against other Arab governments and movements, according to senior Arab officials. The solution, the allies told Rice, lies with stronger U.S. leadership in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

During talks Tuesday in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Rice was confronted by friendly but firm pressure from eight Arab governments -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain -- to follow up on promises by President Bush to help achieve a two-state solution in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. They also questioned whether the administration still has the energy or full commitment to pull off a solution to the Palestinian issue before Bush leaves office, officials said.

Arab officials also expressed frustration that the United States seems far more focused on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. Although Arab states share concern about Iran's nuclear potential, Rice and her Arab interlocutors sometimes seemed to be talking at cross-purposes, according to Arab officials involved in the talks in Cairo. One senior Arab official described the talks as warm but unproductive.

The new Arab pressure came on the same day as a global appeal by 135 former presidents, prime ministers and Nobel Peace Prize winners from the United States, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia for a concerted international effort to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. signatories to the document, released by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, included former president Jimmy Carter, ex-defense secretary Frank Carlucci, 9/11 Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

After talks with Rice in Jiddah on Tuesday, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, called on the Bush administration to "restart" the peace process, warning that the issue had become like a disease that weakened the body's ability to deal with all other diseases.

"There is a very short step from extremism to terrorism. And ever since the problem arose of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the region has been destabilized. . . . Therefore we think it's a core problem [that], if settled, would have beneficiaries on all the other core problems of the region," Faisal told reporters at a joint news conference with Rice.

After afternoon meetings in Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said foreign ministers from the eight Arab countries told Rice of the urgent need to push the peace process forward "as envisioned by President Bush. . . . After all this suffering, we must achieve it," he said at a joint news conference.

Rice is scheduled to fly to Israel on Wednesday for talks with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Rice appealed to the Palestinians on Tuesday to immediately end internal fighting that has killed a dozen people recently and threatened to unravel the troubled Palestinian Authority.

"Innocent Palestinians are caught in this violence and in this crossfire, and we call on all parties to stop. . . . The Palestinian people deserve calm," she told reporters at the news conference with Faisal.

Rice also called on the Palestinians' ruling party, Hamas, to accept negotiations with Israel as the only route to a political solution that will ensure peace. Hamas, which won an upset in January parliamentary elections, continues to balk at any political arrangement that involves recognizing Israel's right to exist.

At the news conference with Aboul Gheit in Cairo, Rice said she was pleased to hear ideas from Arab allies about how the United States might further support Abbas. But Arab officials said they are increasingly concerned that, since the cutoff of tax revenue by Israel and aid by foreign governments since Hamas formed a government, an already serious humanitarian problem has deepened.

Arab foreign ministers also made clear to Rice that they do not want a group of Arab states that she assembled last month at the U.N. General Assembly to be considered a formal bloc, Arab officials said. The group, referred to as the "GCC plus two," comprises the six oil-rich sheikdoms in the Arabian Peninsula, plus Egypt and Jordan.

On Iran, Aboul Gheit said the Arabs listened to Rice but did not agree to any statement or action.

Rice warned Tuesday that after weeks of diplomatic delays and Iranian stalling, time has run out for talks. The issue, she added, is no longer just Iran, but the United Nations' ability to deal effectively with global crises. "I hope that there is still room to resolve this, but the international community is running out of time because soon its own credibility . . . will be a matter of question," Rice said.

Rice is tentatively planning to meet with her European counterparts, possibly in London, at the end of her Middle East tour this week to agree on sanctions to impose on Iran; Security Council action could follow as early as next week.

The United States has not formally specified which sanctions it supports, although they are widely reported to include a travel ban on Iranian officials involved in the nuclear energy program and a ban on the sale of any technology and hardware that could be used for production of deadly weapons. U.S. officials have said the first actions would be mild but would be followed by tougher measures if Iran failed to comply.

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