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(photo credit: AP)
The escalating situation in the Middle East has put the United States in an awkward position. For the first time in many years, Washington is not playing a major role in trying to solve a dire regional crisis. While almost every player that ever had anything to do with the Middle East is trying to negotiate and mediate - Egypt, Turkey, the EU, and even reportedly Finland - the US seems to be taking the back seat.
This is not to say that the US is not troubled by the latest events in both Gaza and Lebanon. Administration officials have expressed concern; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent time on the phone talking to regional leaders; and the White House issued harsh statements deploring the attacks against and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers.
But the administration stopped short of taking any action on the ground or diving into a serious diplomatic effort to solve the crisis. True, two senior officials, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State David Welch embarked this week on their previously planned Middle East trip, which administration sources characterized as a visit that "will deal with a large range of issues" and which would explore possibilities for renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But the thought of dispatching a special envoy or senior official specifically to deal with the issue of the abducted soldiers did not occur to American policy-makers.
Why is the US staying on the sidelines of this crisis?
One reason may be bad timing. The news of the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit on the Gaza border, and of soldiers Ohad Goldwasser and Elad Regev on the Lebanese one, caught the administration in the midst of more urgent international crises: the North Korean missile test and the Iranian refusal to respond to Washington's negotiation invitation. The need to handle these hot spots - and at the same time prepare for the G8 Summit of world leaders (to be held in St. Petersburg on July 16-17) - has left the administration almost incapable of putting together a plan of action for the Israel-Hamas-Hizbullah conflict.
As a lead-in to the summit in Russia, President Bush is trying to project a new US image to replace that of "cowboy diplomacy," as Time magazine labeled it in this week's cover story - one that embraces multilateralism, diplomacy and negotiations. This shift has already manifested itself in the offer made to Iran to open direct negotiations and in reluctance to instigate tough international action against North Korea.
What it means for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the US will think twice before acting on its own, and will pay extra attention to what is said in Europe and the rest of the world before taking any steps. The US, to be sure, does remain the world leader of the anti-Hamas approach. It is also the country setting the tone on the issue of not legitimizing terrorist groups - even democratically elected ones.
But as far as executing concrete measures is concerned, the process will be long and subtle.
THE OTHER reason the US is having difficulty with the current situation in Israel is its lack of effective channels of communication with Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria.
American law, in no uncertain terms, prohibits any and all contact with terrorist entities, which means that US officials are not allowed to hold discussions with representatives of such groups. American military liaison General Keith Dayton, for example, is only permitted to talk with PA President Mahmoud Abbas's people - not with any Palestinian belonging to Hamas.
In the past, the US found ways to communicate with terrorist organizations or other enemies when there was a need to convey messages. Now, however - according to diplomatic sources in Washington - all channels have been cut off. The Americans still regularly receive information from the Egyptians on their talks with Hamas, but there is virtually no direct contact between the US and the Hamas leadership.
Furthermore, the US has all but exhausted its ability to pressure the Palestinians into concessions, since direct aid to the Palestinians has already been cut and indirect humanitarian aid subject to strict scrutiny.
The same is true on the Syrian front. The US hardly communicates with the government of President Bashar Assad, and therefore has no effective means of pressuring him to take action against Hamas and Hizbullah.
Anti-Syria laws passed by Congress still enable the administration to impose additional sanctions on Damascus, but these are largely symbolic and would not make much of a difference. The only recourse is to garner international support for sweeping sanctions against Syria - a move which is still on hold. According to analysts in Washington, such a move would only be undertaken in conjunction with other issues regarding Syria - namely, the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the lack of Syrian action against the Iraqi insurgency.
An illustration of the US's inability to pressure Syria was provided this week by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who flatly acknowledged, "We don't have a whole lot of communication with the Syrian government at this moment," and suggested that "other states" tell Syria to use its influence on Hamas to end the Gaza crisis.
The only channel which seems to be open at the moment is the American-Lebanese one. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his government are attempting to improve their relations with the US and to prove that a "new Lebanon" has emerged since the turbulent days following Hariri's murder.
It is not clear how convinced the US is of the Lebanese government's ability to control Hizbullah, but there is definitely an attempt on the part of the latter to show that it is an ally. When Lebanon's ambassador to Washington, Farid Abboud, said in a CNN interview hours after this week's Hizbullah attack that Israel should negotiate a prisoner swap with the group, he was immediately summoned by his government and returned to Beirut that very night. The Lebanese made clear that their official stand, regardless of what the ambassador said, was opposition to the attack.
WHILE REFRAINING from active diplomacy in the Gaza and Lebanon crises, the US will be able to use the latest expressions of aggression from Hamas and Hizbullah to highlight the need for international action against Iran, which is viewed by the US and Europe to be a sponsor of both terrorist groups. Iran did not reply to the American offer to open negotiations over its nuclear project, and thus will now be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
This will be a tough sell for the Bush administration, which is still working on getting Russia and China to agree to practical measures against Iran. But the terror-sponsoring issue, which has now been raised to the top of the agenda, will make it harder for any member of the Security Council to oppose taking international action against Teheran.