On Nuclear Issue, World Looks for U.S. to Lead

There is growing international pressure on the Bush administration to accelerate efforts to revive the moribund Middle East peace process. There is also criticism of the United States' failure to engage many of the key players, including Syria and Iran.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Secretary of State Rice's trip to the Middle East was billed as an attempt to reach out to moderates in the Arab world, but at every stage she's heard pretty much the same message - the U.S. needs a more robust diplomatic effort to revive the long dormant Arab/Israeli peace process.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, there is growing pressure on the Bush administration to get back to more traditional diplomacy.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The warnings have been stark. U.N. Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen says there's an urgent need for diplomacy on what he says are the four epicenters of conflict in the Middle East - the sectarian violence in Iraq, Lebanon's struggle against Syrian influence, Iran's perceived rise in the region and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. TERJE ROED-LARSEN (Special Envoy, U.N.): The situation is more complex, more fragile, more dangerous now than it has been probably since 1948. And I think, frankly, we are heading for dark times.

KELEMEN: Roed-Larsen is a Norwegian who took part in the secret negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians during the Oslo peace process. He told students at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies yesterday that he thinks the Israelis and the Palestinians need to be pushed to talks and a two state solution should be put to a referendum in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

Mr. ROED-LARSEN: The containment and eventually resolution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is absolutely crucial to the stability of the whole region. There is no other conflict which stirs up emotions and political action so much as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

KELEMEN: He also called for vigorous diplomacy on the other fronts, to persuade Syria and Iran, for instance, to adhere to a United Nations resolution on Lebanon and stop aiding Hezbollah.

For the U.S., this is a problem. The Bush administration doesn't talk to some key players, including Iran. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., Turki Al-Faisal, today criticized this position saying his country has found it vital to keep channels open, to talk with Iran about everything from its support of Hezbollah to its influence in Iraq.

Mr. TURKI AL-FAISAL (Saudi Arabian Ambassador to U.S.): So we think that negotiation and talking to people is more important than shutting the doors on them.

KELEMEN: In unusually blunt language, the Saudi ambassador attacked U.S. policy more broadly during his appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said the U.S. has lost credibility in the region.

Mr. AL-FAISAL: You're policy towards the Arab world must change and be reformed in order to overcome this slump in America's standing in my country and in every other Arab and Muslim country. Why not productively engage us instead of engaging in rhetoric that seems designed to drive us apart?

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been talking about the need to promote the forces of moderation in the Middle East to counter extremism, but in the Palestinian context, this has been a tricky task.

Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group points out that the U.S. has led an international aid boycott of the Palestinian authority run by Hamas which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): So frankly, I think for your average Palestinian listening to the secretary saying we feel for the suffering of the Palestinian people, at the same time as the U.S. is one of the main instigators of a very hard policy toward the Palestinian authority. That kind of disconnect is obviously not going to make us many friends over there.

KELEMEN: The International Crisis Group gathered the signatures of 135 influential world leaders all calling on the U.S. and others to show more political will to resolve the Arab/Israeli conflict. The list includes both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. from former President Jimmy Carter to former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci.

Robert Malley says everyone is responding to what he describes as a catastrophic situation in the Middle East.

Mr. MALLEY: We need to show the administration that there really are two paths. On the one hand, continuing on the current course which everyday demonstrates is leading nowhere or nowhere good or changing and trying to see whether a more active policy of trying to revive Israeli/Palestinian negotiations, Israeli/Syrian negotiations might actually have a chance of success. And you could demonstrate that has a greater chance of success if Arab countries and European countries and others are prepared to step up to the plate and say, we will take risks, too, if you, the U.S., are prepared to take the lead.

KELEMEN: Malley acknowledges that these appeals could fall on deaf ears in Washington, but he and the other signatories say America's credibility and effectiveness in the Middle East depends on a new diplomatic approach.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News. Washington.

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