A Questionable Strategy

THE Arab-Israeli meetings hosted by President Clinton Feb. 12 got very little press mainly because there was very little new to say. Reports on the Washington talks between Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, and US officials were loaded with language all too familiar from periods of near crisis: ''flagging negotiations,'' ''daunting obstacles,'' ''difficult minefields.''

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said, ''It's much more serious than people think.'' A Palestine Liberation Organization official said that progress was difficult to make while Palestinians were ''suffocating.''

The meeting, which followed a summit in Cairo earlier in the month, was designed partly to keep all sides talking. Anger and frustration about the peace process among many Israelis are on the increase, following a suicide bombing in January. Among many Palestinians, who are under complete economic closure and who report hunger and periodic loss of electricity in Gaza, anger reached a boiling point months ago. With no tangible improvements in their basic living condition, and few prospects for real autonomy or statehood despite PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's return, many Palestinians feel abandoned, and this feeds the Hamas movement, including its military wing.

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What the Washington meeting was also designed to do is pressure Mr. Arafat into dealing with his people's anger by a crackdown. Whether this is a workable strategy is questionable. Yet the US government continues to opt for it. What is striking, 16 months after the White House peace accord and the resulting Nobel Peace Prize, is how singularly that accord has come to be interpreted as an instrument to control Hamas through Arafat. This is a long way from the sunny rhetoric on the White House lawn, but probably accurate.

Jews in Israel have a right to be secure, and they have more historic reason than most to want security. Yet that security should not come at the expense of others' rights. We have been impressed to see other editorial comment tying Palestinian violence to the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The White House should make this case. Whether it can, having just chosen a Jewish and ardently pro-Israel ambassador to Tel Aviv, is a question.

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