WASHINGTON – CIA Director George Tenet is playing a quiet role in Bush administration efforts to promote peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.
On an unannounced quick trip to Saudi Arabia, Tenet conferred with Crown Prince Abdullah on Abdullah's peace overture to Israel and also about the U.S. campaign against terrorism, a U.S. official said Friday.
Assistant Secretary of State William Burns accompanied Tenet on the one-stop trip and both have returned to Washington.
Burns and Abdullah "had good and useful discussions on a whole range of subjects," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
The Saudi proposal is designed to end the current stalemate in Mideast negotiations and prompt Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a lasting cease-fire and move quickly into peacemaking steps proposed by a commission headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
Abdullah offered peace, recognition and trade to Israel in exchange for all the land the Arabs lost in the 1967 Mideast war.
Tenet played a leading role in the Clinton administration's Mideast diplomacy, focusing on security issues, and has dealt with these issues for President Bush, as well.
He made a tour of the Persian Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia last month, but returned this week with Burns after Abdullah's proposal received a warm reception from Bush and senior U.S. officials.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Secretary of State Colin Powell both want to see a cease-fire in place before taking even tentative peacemaking steps.
Abdullah, while in basic agreement with the Bush administration's approach, wants peacemaking to begin more quickly.
On the counterterrorism front, Saudi Arabia and its bases would be a key player in any U.S. military moves in the region. Despite some reports the kingdom was dragging its feet, Bush administration officials have insisted the Saudis have done all the United States asked of them.
With the area still plagued by violence, Israeli Ambassador David Ivry complained to the State Department that Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon were firing anti-aircraft weapons into the skies over Israel, raining debris on towns in northern Israel.
"We are very much worried about the Hezbollah initiative," Ivry told The Associated Press. He said the department had assured Israel it would take the matter up with Syria and Lebanon, whose governments support Hezbollah.
The White House, meanwhile, is hoping a retraction by spokesman Ari Fleischer will end an embarrassing public row with former President Clinton over Middle East peacemaking.
"No United States president, including President Clinton, is to blame for violence in the Middle East," the abashed press secretary said Thursday as he tried to calm the storm he touched off earlier in the day.
Clinton's office had issued an angry statement calling Fleischer's initial remarks unfortunate, while Bush's advisers took the spokesman to task.
"The Clinton administration worked energetically for peace in the Middle East in the tradition of every president for over 30 years, because of the stakes involved and our deep concern that the situation would descend into violence in the absence of peace," Clinton's office said.
Fleischer began the difficult day telling reporters that Clinton's failed peacemaking efforts had helped trigger the violence that still plagues the region.
Under pressure from Condoleezza Rice, the president's assistant for national security, Fleischer issued a retraction, saying his remarks were a regrettable mistake.
Rice and Powell were distressed by the potential fallout from Fleischer's remarks. Sandy Berger, Rice's predecessor in the Clinton administration, called her to complain. She assured him Fleischer's remarks did not reflect Bush's policy.
Administration officials said Rice told Fleischer he had to retract the statement, and Bush agreed. Bush's advisers worried that Fleischer had left the impression that the president had no interest in peacemaking between Israel and the Arabs.
If cast clumsily, Fleischer's remarks were not entirely out of step with Bush's approach, nor with any number of Middle East analysts who thought Clinton was moving too hard, too fast.
Debating Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in the campaign, Bush suggested U.S. mediation in the region would work only when the parties were ready and it might be counterproductive to push them prematurely.
Clinton "worked hard to keep the parties at the table," Bush said then. "I will try to do the same thing. But it won't be on my timetable; it'll be on a timetable that people are comfortable with in the Middle East."