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Egyptian official: Mideast risk high if U.S. doesn't get more involved

El-Baz says the Bush administration's perceived inaction in the Mideast has badly damaged its credibility in the Arab world.  

By Andrea Koppel and Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Egypt's top foreign policy official on Thursday criticized what he called the Bush administration's lack of involvement in the Mideast conflict, warning that further inaction runs the risk of unleashing extremist forces "within weeks."

"If you call upon a party to stop the violence and that's it, this is not enough," Osama el-Baz, the National Security Adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, told CNN. "Everybody assumes the U.S. could have stopped this deterioration."

El-Baz heads an Egyptian delegation now in Washington to discuss ways to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward. In addition to meeting with lower-level State Department and White House officials, el-Baz is scheduled to talk with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Friday.

El-Baz said he would tell the Bush administration that "active American diplomacy" is needed to steer both sides away from violence.

CNN's Ben Wedeman reports the ongoing Mideast conflict has many Palestinian communities feeling helpless and frustrated (August 14)

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"It has become a spiral of escalation that nobody is able to stop," he said. "We need American involvement."

Bush has condemned the violence several times in recent days, calling on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to crack down on suicide bombers and Israel to show restraint. White House officials said the president talked on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with both leaders agreeing on the need to avoid escalation and implement the Mitchell committee report.

The Mitchell committee, a five-man, international panel headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, studied the Israeli-Palestinian violence and offered an outline on how to end it.

State Department officials also said Thursday the United States is "deeply engaged" in mediating the conflict.

But in criticizing sweeping statements from Bush, el-Baz said Washington must take direct, specific action to curb the violence.

El-Baz said the United States should call on the parties involved to end the violence and agree to an international observer force. Washington has maintained that monitors would only be helpful if both Israelis and Palestinians agree to their presence, the violence has stopped and both parties have begun implementing recommendations of the Mitchell report.

But el-Baz said "observers must go now," adding that if a team of observers carried "the prestige and the power of persuasion of the U.S., everybody will think twice before taking any step that will be a violation of the cease-fire" negotiated in June by CIA Director George Tenet but never implemented.

"If we leave it to the parties to decide if it's being observed they'll always have the opportunity or the ability to blame each other," he said.

The increased "radicalizing" of Arab and Israeli youth -- who are beginning to believe "the premise of peace was the wrong one" -- has heightened the sense of urgency, el-Baz said. Students at Arab universities will soon begin fall semester, he noted, giving them the chance to congregate and follow the violence together on television.

"If the forces of extremism are left unchecked, this will lead to a strengthening of their argument," el-Baz said. "It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

El-Baz also said the Bush administration's perceived inaction has badly damaged U.S. interests in the Arab world -- from oil interests to trade to American travel abroad.

"There is an image of a great power that doesn't take any risks," said el-Baz, adding Egypt itself was under tremendous pressure because of what he called U.S. trepidation to get heavily involved in the conflict.

"The government of Jordan is complaining to us," he said. "The Gulf and North Africa. They're saying the American hesitation to assume an active, visible role is causing us much damage."

Deputy State Department spokesman Phil Reeker countered el-Baz's charges that the Bush administration was not actively involved in mediating the conflict.

"We're talking to leaders of the international community, in close contact with both sides -- the Israelis and the Palestinians -- trying to find ways that we can restore a sense of trust and confidence between the two sides, in hopes of finding a lasting, permanent solution," Reeker said.

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