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Damage Control in the Mideast

By David Ignatius

The Bush administration is groping toward a diplomatic firewall strategy that might help keep the inferno in Iraq from spreading in the Middle East.

This approach has two basic components: pushing harder for negotiations to establish a Palestinian state, and creating a standing "Iraq neighbors' conference" to prevent states in the region from taking advantage of Iraq's chaos or being infected by it.

Officials stress that the diplomatic strategy isn't a static attempt at containment, but a proactive effort to deal with issues at the heart of instability in the Middle East -- the long-festering wound of the Palestinian problem and the regional and sectarian tensions that are fueling violence in Iraq.

The new effort makes sense, as senior officials described it in interviews this week. But as the administration has so painfully demonstrated over the past six years, it's easier to talk about positive change in the Middle East than to make it happen. To make real progress on either front -- Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations or a concert of Iraq's neighbors -- will require an intensity and deftness in diplomacy the administration hasn't yet shown.

President Bush outlined the new push on the Palestinian issue in a speech last week, in which he proposed a peace conference of nations that support a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. He used language intended to woo the Arabs, referring to Israeli "occupation of the West Bank," and saying that peace must include "agreement on all the issues, including refugees and Jerusalem."

The Bush speech seemed to push the right buttons in Riyadh. Senior administration officials were pleased by a Saudi statement that endorsed Bush's proposal and said its points "correspond with the Arab Peace Initiative" the Saudis have been backing. U.S. officials took the Saudi statement as a sign that Riyadh wants serious negotiations to begin soon.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hopes that the Saudis will attend the peace conference planned for this fall. She wants that meeting to provide an Arab umbrella for serious bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, which could begin soon after the conference takes place.

The goal of the conference is to get Arab buy-in before negotiations, and thereby give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas some political cover. Administration officials complain that in the past, the Arabs have given verbal support to the idea of a negotiated settlement only to abandon the process when the bargaining reached sensitive issues that would require compromise.

The new talk about negotiations reflects the changed dynamics in the Palestinian territories, following the radical Hamas government's armed takeover in Gaza last month. The unintended consequence of that putsch by the radicals was that it opened the way for Abbas and his moderate allies to intensify their diplomatic contacts with the United States and Israel. This amounts to a "West Bank first" strategy, since that's the only territory Abbas now controls. But administration officials hope that as negotiations move forward, those in Hamas who want a Palestinian state will split from more radical allies and form a political party that could draw Gaza into the negotiations.

The push for a conference of Iraq's neighbors is a joint project of Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who seem to have formed a working partnership on Middle East strategy. They will travel to the region together next month in what a senior official described as an attempt "to reassure allies that we will defend our interests and theirs," despite the current instability in Iraq. As part of that effort, the senior official said, "We're going to move to a more regular or permanent version of the Iraq neighbors' conference."

The administration recognizes that Iran would be an essential part of any such regional conference. And Rice still seems hopeful that although the Iranians haven't delivered any practical help yet in stabilizing Iraq, the long-term process of engagement is worth continuing. The basic agenda for the second U.S.-Iranian ambassadorial meeting, which was announced this week, will be similar to that for the first -- setting ground rules for reducing violence in Iraq. The larger framework for the talks is the conviction that the U.S. and Iran have overlapping interests in Iraq. Rice seems, if anything, more convinced of those shared interests than she was six months ago.

Rice and Gates seem to agree that this diplomatic push is an essential response to the continuing violence in Iraq. In an administration often marked by intense disagreement between State and Defense, their alliance will help focus thinking about how to stabilize a region that is dangerously out of control.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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