President George W. Bush has ordered the CIA to stop brokering security cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel in an effort to encourage the parties deal directly, the White House said on Thursday.
The decision is the latest in a series of signs the Bush administration will take a more hands-off approach to Middle East peace-making, after years of intense and direct U.S. involvement under former President Bill Clinton.
"The move is in keeping with this administration's approach of encouraging the parties to talk and coordinate directly on security," said National Security Council spokesman Mary Ellen Countryman, who declined to elaborate.
Under the Clinton administration, the CIA began a new role of encouraging communication between the Israelis and Palestinians on security issues.
Its effort took on great urgency following the latest Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in which more than 400 people have died during the past six months.
The Israeli-Palestinian clashes began after the Sept. 28 visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to a Jerusalem shrine holy to both Jews and Muslims. Sharon, a right-wing politician and former general, was not prime minister at the time.
The new CIA role began after the Wye River land-for-peace agreement in October 1998, when the Clinton administration, the Israelis and Palestinians asked the spy agency to aid communication between the two sides on security issues.
The goal was to get the Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other to work together to try to stop the violence and improve the security situation on the ground.
A U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be named said the CIA was not troubled by the move to end its special role.
"The agency has no problem whatsoever with this," the U.S. intelligence official said. "The agency played the role it did at the request of the parties and the intent was to enhance security cooperation."
CIA Director George Tenet took on a higher-profile role in the effort after the latest round of violence began, joining Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in early October.
The spy agency's chief also met his Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian counterparts in Cairo on Jan. 7 to discuss security issues and combating violence in the region.
The Washington Post first reported the decision to end the CIA's special role, which it said included pressing for closer coordination and arbitrating disputes over how to address specific threats.
The CIA is now expected to revert to its more traditional role, which means instead of conducting three-way talks it will hold separate one-on-one discussions with the Israelis and the Palestinians and also urge them to talk to each other.