- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

President Bush said yesterday he is looking for a smooth start to relations with Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, who is sending his top foreign policy advisers to Washington next week.

Mr. Sharon's huge victory over Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday raised questions about the future of a region where vast U.S. oil interests intersect with concerns for Israel's safety, Palestinian rights and Iraq's ambitions.

"We will continue to reach out to the parties in that region to promote an environment of stability and calm to give the Sharon government a chance to do what he said he was going to do, which was to try to form a unity government and reach out to the parties to promote peace in the region," Mr. Bush said.

Bush spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said: "We're keeping, obviously, a close eye on this situation, and the White House will be working for comprehensive peace in the region."

"But first thing, [Mr. Sharon] has to form a government and the parties have to let us know how they will proceed."

With new governments taking shape in Washington and Israel, and Israeli-Palestinian talks deadlocked, the Bush team has signaled it would be less directly involved in peace talks than the outgoing Clinton administration.

The White House has fired the State Department's special Middle East envoys and is letting the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs handle the region.

It also is focused not just on the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians but wider, regional Middle East problems such as oil, the stability of moderate Arab states and the intransigence of Iraq and Iran.

"The president has indicated that he does not, at least at this stage, want to have special envoys. He wants to empower the desks at the State Department," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to make his first solo foreign trip to the Middle East later this month after he accompanies Mr. Bush to Mexico.

Next week he is likely to meet with a team of senior aides to Mr. Sharon that an Israeli official said is to visit Washington to discuss foreign and security policies.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, former Ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval and former Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold are to visit as part of Mr. Sharon's foreign policy transition team, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mr. Sharon, 72, who was swept into power after Mr. Barak proved unable to quell the bloody intifada or Palestinian uprising, has said he will make major changes in Israeli policy.

He has said will pull the plug on failed talks toward a comprehensive peace accord that would attempt to settle ownership of Jerusalem, the fate of up to 4 million Arab refugees seeking return to Israel and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

He said he will not even negotiate with the Palestinians until they carry out agreements to stop the violence signed at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik last year.

Instead of a comprehensive peace accord, Mr. Sharon called for a "non-belligerency" agreement which could end fighting and possibly restore normal economic and security conditions within Israel and Palestinian territories.

The former general, reviled by Arabs for his tough behavior during a series of wars and lesser conflicts since 1948, has recently adopted a more conciliatory attitude and accepted that there will eventually be a Palestinian state.

But he would roll back offers by Mr. Barak and offer less land while retaining control of Jerusalem and security regions in the Jordan Valley.

"Non-belligerency is less than war and less than full peace," said the Israeli official. "The idea is to create a situation of no violence between us and the Palestinians."

He said the Israeli delegation will represent the prime minister-elect in meetings with senior members of Congress and officials of the Bush administration.

"They are coming to establish channels of communication with the new administration," he said.

Already, U.S. Jewish groups long opposed to Mr. Sharon's hawkish views began to voice support for U.S. engagement with him and with the peace effort.

"For the sake of U.S. interests and for the sake of the peoples of the Middle East, Americans for Peace Now calls on the Bush Administration to actively work to ensure that the current cycle of violence comes to an end and the pursuit of a realistic, enduring, and secure peace is resumed," the group said yesterday in a statement.

The reform Jewish Union of American Hebrew Congregations congratulated Mr. Sharon on his election and called on him to carry out a promise to "conduct immediate negotiations" with the Palestinians.

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