The Bush administration welcomed Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens for talks Monday amid indications the United States remained reluctant to push a new Mideast peace initiative.
Arens' trip to Washington, which began with a session with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, was designed by the U.S. administration to focus more on measures to reduce tensions in the Israeli-occupied territories than on a grand design for an Arab-Israeli settlement.After the talk with Baker and a working lunch, Arens was due to see President Bush at the White House.
"It's just basically common sense that before you do anything that you could consider an initiative, you've got to change the conditions and lower the level of violence and confrontation," a U.S. official, speaking on grounds of anonymity, said Sunday.
Bush has said he won't be stampeded into offering wide-ranging new peace initiatives in his talks with Middle East leaders. Arens will be followed here later this spring by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and there also will be visits by Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Bush has kept open the U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, although administration officials have expressed concern about recent attacks by Palestinian guerrillas against Israeli soldiers.
Both U.S. and Israeli officials seem content to use this week's talks to buy time before moving more heavily into the complex problems of Mideast peacemaking.
Arens, who is making his first trip to the United States as foreign minister, has characterized the meetings as get-to-know-you sessions rather than a substantive discussion of peacemaking strategy.
U.S. officials plan to ask Israel to release some of the Palestinians arrested during the 15-month uprising, end or limit detentions and reopen schools in the territories, The New York Times reported Sunday, quoting an unidentified senior administration official.
It said the U.S. initiatives also would call on the PLO to halt violent demonstrations in the Israeli-occupied territories, block anti-Israeli raids from southern Lebanon and stop distribution of inflammatory leaflets.
The administration official said the aim of the American suggestions to both Israel and to the PLO are to bring about "confidence-building measures on both sides because the Israelis and Palestinians really don't trust each other."
But in advance of Monday's meetings, Palestinian leaders attending a Mideast peace symposium in New York denounced the administration ideas for calming tensions in the region.
They called on the administration to push instead for a permanent solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, including creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Several left-wing Israeli legislators attending the three-day symposium at Columbia University also predicted that the U.S. proposals would fail if they included only interim measures for quelling the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But Yossi Sarid, a member of the left-wing Citizens Rights Movement in Israel's Knesset, or parliament, said the Bush proposals "show at least that the new administration has a sense of urgency" about restarting the Mideast peace process.
Faisal Husseini, director of the Arab Studies Center in East Jerusalem and a top Palestinian leader in the occupied territories, called the U.S. suggestions "unbalanced, unfair."
He said the new U.S. proposals were flawed because "they are asking us to stop the demonstrations," while Israel was being asked "the minimum."