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The U.S. administration has lowered its level of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and ceased efforts to renew the political process as it focuses on the war in Iraq and President George W. Bush's reelection.

Everything else is secondary and, as far as the administration is concerned, that means Israel and the Palestinians are required not to get in the way of those two goals.

According to messages reaching Jerusalem from Washington, the Israeli side does not always seem to understand the American interests, and does not always help advance those interests. Therefore, administration officials have been reiterating to Israeli officials three "noes" or red lines that Israel has been asked not to cross: not to harm Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, not to shock the region, and not to take steps that set facts on the ground, foiling the future Palestinian state. The Americans emphasize that it is important to maintain that state's viability and contiguity, so they oppose settlement expansion and the separation fence's route, and demand that the illegal outposts be dismantled.

The Americans have stepped up the intensity of their demands on the Israelis and the severity of their statements against the settlements, outposts and fence, as well as their pressure on Israel to ease humanitarian conditions for the Palestinians.

No crisis expected

But Israeli sources say they do not expect any crisis in the relationship with Washington, at least not until after the November 2004 U.S. elections. The sources said the American moves cutting the loan guarantees to match Israeli investment in the settlements were very low key and that, while the U.S. voted in favor of the UN Security Council resolution adopting the road map - against Israel's wishes - the U.S. is working to foil a Palestinian effort to move the fence issue to the international criminal court in The Hague.

U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, meanwhile, is working closely with Mike Herzog, the defense minister's military secretary, on the illegal outpost issue and to reach an agreement with the Americans on the number of outposts that must be removed. According to the road map, all the outposts established since March 2001 are illegal. The two are also discussing implementing an understanding the Americans believe they reached with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about limiting construction in the settlements to built-up areas. Many of the outposts are regarded as extensions of existing settlements.

The Israeli sources also said there is an organizational reason for the stepped-up U.S. criticism of Israeli policy. With National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice focused on Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the hands of Elliot Abrams, who is micromanaging the daily events, getting reports on every settlement construction, uprooted olive tree or outpost extension.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has stepped into the vacuum left by Rice, and since he has been frustrated many a time by Jerusalem in the past three years, he no doubt is enjoying getting back at Sharon, such as with his readiness to meet with the Geneva Accord organizers.

The White House nonetheless is keeping an eye on the State Department and won't allow things to get out of hand, especially as the American elections approach.

Besides, Washington is continuing to boycott Arafat and, after the failure of Mahmoud Abbas, a Bush favorite, as Palestinian prime minister, it is in no hurry to embrace Ahmed Qureia. The Americans probably won't even meet with him at a level higher than Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, in the region now, until after a Sharon-Qureia meeting, which also does not appear to be coming soon.

Burns told Qureia during their meeting over the weekend to stop posing preconditions for a meeting with Sharon, Israeli sources said on Sunday.