Tue, 07 Nov 2000

Mideast: Bush, Gore sail on same boat

By Jonathan Wright

WASHINGTON (Reuters): Conflict in the Middle East lurks in the background of the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday but most Middle East analysts say they would need a microscope to detect any differences in the approaches of the two main candidates to this foreign policy priority.

The new president, whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican Party or Vice President Al Gore for the Democrats, can expect to land deep in Middle East peacemaking almost as soon as he takes office on Jan. 20.

But any Arabs or Israelis who hope that a victory by one or the other will shift the balance in their favor are likely to be disappointed, American analysts say.

Arab observers, attuned to every nuance in everything Bush and Gore might say on the subject, see Bush as slightly less favorable to Israel, but others say the Arabs are reading too much into too little evidence.

"On the Arab-Israeli conflict, I see very little difference, because Bush and Gore realize that the United States cannot impose a deal," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

"More than in other areas, the differences are of style rather than of substance, because U.S. interests in the Middle East are so well defined," added Judith Kipper of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

On the one occasion when Bush and Gore talked about the Middle East in public debate, they both made the ritual endorsement of U.S. support for Israel, and for its role as chief mediator between Israel and its neighbors.

"Should I be the president, Israel's going to be our friend. I'm going to stand by Israel," said Bush.

"We stand by Israel, but we have maintained the ability to serve as an honest broker," chipped in Gore.

Bush did add that it was important for the U.S. to reach out to "moderate Arab nations" such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, reinforcing in Arab minds the impression that his oil industry background and connections might make him more sympathetic to Arab interests.

Gore, expanding on his position, said the U.S. must hang on to its mediation role because this was a strategic asset both to Israel and the United States.

Bush, implicitly criticizing inveterate dealmaker President Bill Clinton, said the U.S. should not try to set the timetable for Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Clovis Maksoud, director of the Center for the Global South at American University in Washington, said he saw signs that Gore's thinking was "rooted in pro-Israeli positions" while Bush did not support Israel out of ideological conviction.

"Bush might be a little more deferential to the economic interests of oil-producing countries," added Maksoud, a former chief representative of the Arab League.

But the American analysts say the influences on the next president would be much the same whoever wins.

"Policy comes from the federal bureaucracy, U.S. allies, congressional interests, from ethnic and other pressure groups. It is a product of all of those, so there would not be a big difference," Alterman told Reuters.

U.S. officials say Washington's strong relationship with Israel is based on history, shared values and personal connections between Israelis and Americans.

But they know that the U.S. also needs good relations with the Arab world, with more than 250 million people and enormous energy resources.

Since U.S. support for Israel is the main Arab grievance against Washington and, directly or indirectly, the main cause of violent attacks on Americans and American interests in the Middle East, the need to make peace is bound to be urgent.

Cynics say U.S. policy is mainly the result of the electoral weight of the American-Jewish community, which, like other ethnic groups in their own areas, can have a disproportionate influence when its interests are at stake.

Interestingly, the emerging Arab-American community has started to flex its muscles in this election campaign, obtaining pledges from both Bush and Gore that they will end two forms of discrimination -- deportation of immigrants on the basis of secret evidence and ethnic profiling by airlines.

In the past, new U.S. presidents have tended to keep their distance from the Middle East in the first months in office, preferring to concentrate on domestic matters.

This time, with fighting on the streets of the West Bank after a historic peace agreement seemed so tantalizingly close at the Camp David summit in July, it is an open question whether the next president will have that luxury.

"When Middle East leaders come and nag for action, it's very hard for the president to resist," said Kipper.

Alterman said he saw another scenario -- that Middle East leaders would make a brief detour toward international mediation, but eventually return to the United States.

He noted that two of the biggest breakthroughs in Middle East diplomacy -- Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in 1977 and the secret talks in Oslo that led to the Israeli- Palestinian agreement of 1993 -- followed attempts at internationalization.

In both cases the parties dealt directly and then turned to the U.S. to underpin their agreements.

"I don't think you'll see the same level of presidential involvement (as under Clinton) in the first six months of any administration. The process won't be at that point and the administration will work on other things," Alterman said.