U.S. cautious on Middle East peace hopes after pullout
Experts say little may get done immediately withdrawal, urgent contraints on both sides.
The United States hopes Israel's withdrawal from Gaza will jump-start the Middle East peace process but experts caution little may get done in the months after the pullout.
The United States sees Gaza as a starting point in the peace process but a State Department official said it was clear there were urgent constraints on both sides.
"Our plan is to urge both sides to get back to dialogue but we have to see how this goes. You can't script this too much," said the official, who asked not to be named for fear of offending either side before the pullout.
Hamas vowed on Saturday to continue armed attacks after Israel's Gaza pullout, declaring that armed conflict was essential to ending occupation and achieving statehood.
Senior U.S. officials have been shuttling back and forth between the Middle East and Washington trying to smooth out problems before the withdrawal, which begins on Wednesday and the Israel Defense Forces hopes to complete by September 4.
Assistant Secretary of State David Welch is expected in the region this weekend, and while there are no current plans for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit, her staff says she is ready to go if needed.
The United States is trying to sweeten the withdrawal by taking steps to improve living conditions for both sides. In recent days, the U.S. Agency for International Development has advertised future contracts for engineers to improve roads in Gaza as well as a feasibility study with the World Bank on a secure transport system linking Gaza with the West Bank.
Middle East experts and former U.S. diplomats said the United States needed to ensure Palestinians were given easy access in and out of Gaza to avoid protests and possibly complicate future peace efforts.
Ned Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt and now president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the Palestinians would want to move quickly after the withdrawal to resolve other issues such as the status of the West Bank, which would put the Bush administration in a tricky position with Israel.
"If the Israelis stonewall they will risk the whole process blowing up in their face. The U.S. can make this point and it will have to be done through some serious talk with Israel's Prime Minister," said Walker.
Dennis Ross, a U.S. special envoy to the Middle East during the Clinton administration, said he was disappointed the United States had not yet managed to get some important access issues resolved but he said no matter how the pullout went Washington should take the lead in future negotiations.
"The U.S. has not played it (the lead negotiating role) for the past 4 and a half years and no one else stepped in. If the U.S. doesn't do it, then it can't be done," Ross said.
He said he expected the Israelis would want to pause for a bit after the "emotional trauma" of the withdrawal, while the Palestinians would push for more.
"The Palestinians are going to say that we need to know that it's Gaza first and not last," said Ross.
Some Palestinians fear the withdrawal plan is a ruse to trade tiny Gaza for much of the occupied West Bank, where around 230,000 Israeli settlers live in fortified enclaves among 2.4 million Palestinians. The West Bank is 15 times the size of Gaza.
Middle East expert Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution said the Palestinians were pushing for final status negotiations and they wanted Washington to push their case.
"They are expecting a Palestinian state on President George W. Bush's clock," Telhami said.
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, said U.S. involvement was welcome but it was up to the Palestinians and Israelis to take the initiative.
What happens next, he said, depends on the Palestinians. "They have the keys in their hands," he said