Bush Removes Hand from Rice’s Middle East Gambits

White House circles this week pointedly contradicted US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice‘s assertion that President George W. Bush would personally take a hand in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations on Jan. 9, when he arrives for visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah.

She said after the Middle East conference at Annapolis last month that the President “very much wants to signal support for the bilateral process between the parties and to continue in a hands-on way to encourage them to move forward.”

Not so. “The president is unlikely to immerse himself in the details of the negotiations,” say White House sources. “This is Secretary Rice’s baby. It is up to her to succeed or fail.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources stress that the president is determined to stay aloof from Rice’s intense engagement in the Palestinian issue and let her sink or swim on her own.

State Department circles close to the Secretary report her profound disappointment in George Bush’s hands-off attitude. It means she will be on her own, without presidential backing, when she carries out her plan to squeeze Israel for further concessions to the Palestinians.

Political sources report the Annapolis event was enough for Bush. He now expects the Israelis and Palestinians to carry on by themselves. In any case, they point out, the president has plenty more urgent tasks on his hands than the Palestinian-Israeli dispute in his forthcoming Middle East tour. His first priority must be to repair the great damage caused American credibility – especially in the Persian Gulf and Israel – by the National Intelligence Estimate’s claim that Iran had dropped its nuclear arms program in 2003.

Its release was perceived by most of the region as signaling Bush’s decision to back away from confrontation with Iran in his last year as president.


Turkish air strike mix-up embarrasses Washington


Another issue at the top of the Bush agenda is Russia’s rapidly expanding influence in the Middle East and Gulf.

Then, too, this week saw an American stumble placed at the door of the Secretary of State. Washington was criticized for its handling of Turkey air strike over northern Iraqi Kurdistan at the weekend. Monday, Dec. 17, Rice had just landed in Iraq when Turkish army chief Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said the US had opened air space and provided intelligence for 50 Turkish warplanes to attack PKK bases in northern Iraq’s regions of Zap, Hakurk, Avasin and the Qandil mountains.

Gen. Buyukanit told a TV interviewer: “The US gave intelligence… But what is more important the US opened northern Iraqi airspace to us. By doing that the US approved the operation.”

Summoned by the furious Iraqi government, a US embassy official in Baghdad and later the Pentagon affirmed that US commanders had not approved the Turkish air assault but had received prior notice.

Tuesday night, US commanders flatly contradicted this statement. They knew nothing about the attack until it was already underway, they said, seeming to accuse the Secretary of State of policy-making over their heads.

One senior State Department official then stated that the Turks informed the United States of the air strikes through military channels in Ankara, but not until after the first wave of planes was already in the air.

The mix-up has caused serious embarrassment in Washington. During his travels, the president will need to address the clash between the US military and State Department as part of his efforts to repair US standing in the region.

He will also need to explain to America’s foremost allies in Iraq, the Nouri al Maliki government and the Kurdish autonomous rulers – who boycotted Condoleezza Rice during her Baghdad visit – why his administration allowed an external government for the first time to pursue military action inside Iraq against non-Iraqi targets.

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