Sue Pleming
December 31, 2008 - 1:00am

With three weeks to go, the Bush administration is struggling over how to tackle Middle East violence, hobbled by the exit of key diplomats and cautious after a dismal diplomatic effort in Lebanon in 2006.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush have worked the phones with Western and Arab allies since Israel attacked Gaza and Hamas fired rockets into the Jewish state with the collapse of a ceasefire.

But several experts and diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said divisions had emerged with the White House leaning toward letting Israel go on pounding Hamas targets in Gaza and the State Department more cautious.

"There seems to be a lot of internal debate inside the administration," one Arab diplomat said.

A Western diplomat, who also asked not to be identified as his comments were sensitive, said the State Department was mindful of how Arab opinion turned against the United States during the Lebanon war because of U.S. support for Israel.

"The old splits seem to be open," the diplomat said of apparent divisions between the National Security Council at the White House and the State Department.

Complicating the picture is the departure two weeks ago of the State Department's key diplomat for the Middle East, David Welch, while others are also packing their bags. Bush, viewed by many as strongly pro-Israel, leaves office on Jan. 20.


During the 2006 war between Lebanon's Hezbollah and Israel, Rice came under heavy criticism for demanding not an immediate ceasefire but rather that world leaders work urgently to reach a "sustainable" accord to stop the fighting.

That was interpreted as giving Israel a green light to keep on pounding Lebanon.

"There is much more caution this time. Our policy-makers are heavily conditioned by 2006, especially Secretary Rice," said one Middle East expert, who asked not to be identified.

Rice's comments in 2006 that the Lebanon crisis amounted to the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" were later seen as a big mistake and there has since been more care not to repeat such semantic errors.

A diplomat said there was also a lack of confidence in the Israelis and fears that they might launch a ground offensive, coupled with a realization that many Israeli actions have political overtones because of a Feb. 10 general election.

After the fighting broke out in Gaza, Rice issued a statement urging the ceasefire be "restored immediately."

Later State Department comments were more in line with the White House stance, which called for a "durable and sustainable ceasefire," implying stricter terms and conditions for reaching such a truce, which would take longer.


By not demanding an immediate ceasefire, the United States was repeating errors of the past, some analysts said.

"They have not learned that ceasefires are imperfect but that you have to try and build on them," said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid denied there were any differences with the White House. "We are completely in sync. Secretary Rice is in touch on a daily basis with the president," Duguid told Reuters.

Washington has joined a flurry of international diplomacy to get a ceasefire deal, with France leading European efforts and Arab ministers working on their own plan while Turkey is also emerging as a significant player.

The U.N. Security Council, which played a key role in getting a ceasefire deal in Lebanon in 2006, has taken the initiative also on Gaza and called a meeting on Wednesday.

The United States is circulating its own suggestions of what should be in a ceasefire arrangement, including an end to rocket attacks and mortar attacks on Israel and an "immediate" end to Israeli hostilities in Gaza.

Other U.S. elements, which officials said were still "evolving," include implementing a peace initiative by the Arab League, reimplementation of a 2005 agreement on movement and access of goods into Gaza and a process to resolve the continued detention of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as well as Palestinians held by Israel.

Diplomats said foreign ministers from the quartet of Middle East peace brokers -- the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- also discussed a plan on Tuesday based on a French initiative, but this was rejected by Israel.

"As of now, none of the proposals seems to be sticking," said one diplomat, adding there was neither clarity on the language nor sequencing of a cease-fire deal and discussions were ongoing in various capitals on how to proceed.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017