Bill Clinton's Opportunity in the Middle East

THE last time a sitting United States president was defeated by the opposition party was in 1980. Then, as now, the administration was deeply involved in Middle East negotiations that had been going on for more than a year and showed great promise.

Twelve years ago during that earlier transition, the talks were about Palestinian autonomy. They represented the next stage after the Camp David peace agreements. Harold Saunders, who was then assistant secretary of state for the Near East, recalls that the incoming Reagan administration made a deliberate decision to put the talks on the "back-burner." In the months that followed, without strong US leadership, the peace process gradually collapsed.

Understandably, any new administration wants to establish an identity separate from that of its predecessor. While Camp David was a huge success, it had been Jimmy Carter's personal triumph. For their own reasons, the Reaganites simply did not place a high priority on continuing the process started by Mr. Carter. An unfortunate result, however, was that much of the progress that had been made in the talks was lost. Ironically, US diplomats today would be overjoyed if the Israeli side would agree to some of the provisions with which it concurred in that earlier round.

President-elect Clinton obviously does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, and he has an interest in demonstrating his statesmanlike qualities. Thus, a wise move for him at this point would be to actively embrace the peace process started by the Bush administration. He has already stated the need to keep the process "on track."

It is important for Mr. Clinton to move quickly. Arab-Israeli negotiations are at a crucial juncture. Yitzhak Rabin won the Israeli election in June with a platform of reaching agreement on Palestinian autonomy within six to nine months. Prime Minister Rabin needs to show results if he is to assure a majority of Israelis that they can live securely with the accommodations that will have to be made. On the other side, Arab governments and the Palestinian leadership have put themselves at risk by agreeing to direct negotiations with Israel. Great expectations have been raised, but to date, there has been little in the way of specific progress.

There is great fear among supporters of the peace process in both Arab countries and Israel that the Clinton administration will turn inward and neglect the Middle East. At the same time, Arabs and Israelis alike are generally convinced that high-level and sustained US involvement is necessary for the peace talks to succeed. Most would also agree that, in view of increasing extremism in the region, time is not on the side of those who want to see negotiated settlements.

In any new administration, action on major initiatives usually requires a policy review and a change in personnel. The urgency of the Middle East, however, argues against this approach. At a minimum, precious momentum will be lost if the new administration waits the customary six months or so after the election until it is well enough organized to take its own initiatives.

For the president-elect, the Middle East represents not only danger but also opportunity. By strongly endorsing the peace process, Clinton would be demonstrating his commitment to "look beyond partisanship." He would not only be setting an inclusive tone, but he would be establishing a nonpartisan model for other foreign (and domestic) initiatives.

Clinton might also make a gracious acknowledgment of the accomplishments of James Baker and his associates in bringing the peace process as far as they have. To an unprecedented degree, the Baker team has built up trust and goodwill with the leaders of the region. It would be extremely helpful to the process if the president-elect were to announce he intends to retain the professional diplomats on the Baker team, who would subsequently be joined by his own appointees.

It is not customary for a new president to honor his predecessor's chief political adviser - even if that adviser also served as secretary of state. Nevertheless, probably the best way of all to maintain continuity and momentum in the talks would be for Clinton to keep Mr. Baker directly involved in helping to bring peace to the Middle East.

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