- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2001

JERUSALEM — People who know him say Washingtons new Middle East troubleshooter, William Burns, has an abundance of patience.
Hes going to need it.
Mr. Burns, confirmed just last week as the new assistant secretary of state for the Near East and already logging hours with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, is in the region trying to negotiate a truce in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
His predecessors in the Clinton administration had a more ambitious agenda — to broker a final peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. But after eight months of violence, Mr. Burns relatively modest objective might be even tougher to achieve.
Using a U.S.-led commissions report on the violence as a road map for a truce, Mr. Burns has heard conciliatory messages from both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the past two days.
But the background noise — mainly the roar of Palestinian bombings and the clamor of Israeli settlement expansion — must be telling the seasoned diplomat that hes signed on for the toughest job of his 20-year career.
"Hes in for a difficult time here with both sides," said Israeli political analyst and former diplomat Shlomo Avineri.
In what might be registered as his first success, Mr. Burns appeared yesterday to secure the agreement of Israelis and Palestinians to resume security coordination meetings for the first time in weeks.
Officials said the first such meeting might take place as soon as today.
Mr. Burns, who served until recently as Washingtons ambassador to Jordan, is intimately familiar with the complexities of the Middle East and is well-respected in the Near East Affairs Bureau.
One of his first overseas postings was in Jordan in the early 80s, when he held the job of political officer at the embassy.
As the Middle East expert on the National Security Council staff during a previous Republican administration, Mr. Burns got to know Secretary of State Colin Powell, who tapped him this month for the new position.
His appointment was meant to signal that the Bush administration, while refusing to assume the kind of role Mr. Clinton played in Middle East peace brokering, was nonetheless committed to keeping the region from boiling over.
Mr. Burns, who speaks Arabic and has important friends in several Middle East capitals, emphasized the point while addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing two weeks ago.
"With all its hazards and frustrations, active American engagement in the Middle East is a necessity, not an option. All of our interests depend on it," he said.
While affirming Washingtons "unshakable commitment" to Israels security, Mr. Burns also made a gesture to the Arabs, referring to dangerous misperceptions many had about the United States.
"Many Arabs think we dont care about their concerns; worse, many think were actively hostile to them," he said.
Palestinians said this comment alone distinguishes Mr. Burns from former Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, whom Palestinians often accused of being in Israels court. Mr. Ross shuttled between Israelis and Palestinians for years, in an undertaking that climaxed at the failed Camp David peace summit last July.
"I think Ross was not sensitive enough to the Palestinian view, the Palestinian need, the Palestinian concern and he was oversensitive to Israeli needs," said Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib.
But if Mr. Burns, who did not officially inherit Mr. Ross job — that position has gone unfilled — is starting out with a better credit rating from the Arab side, hes still having trouble getting Israelis and Palestinians to move on a report issued last week by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and his team.
The report calls for an immediate cessation of violence followed by a series of confidence-building measures, including an Israeli freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.


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