Latest Mideast clash: a prelude to peace?

US officials hope spasm of violence is only a detour in road to final accord.

On the surface it looks bad: Arabs and Israelis battling in Gaza and the West Bank, hardliners on either side gaining more prominence, and the US falling short after a hard push for a Middle East peace settlement.

In spite of it all, however, US officials are trying to put a positive spin on the worst Middle East violence in four years. The logic is that more bloodshed could make each side realize how much it needs a peace deal. And the US would be there to walk them through the process.

Today Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was expected to meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Paris, though there remains a possibility the two could be brought together for three-way talks.

Later in the week, the two Mideast leaders are expected to go to Egypt for meetings with President Hosni Mubarak.

"[When] the smoke clears here, it might actually be a spur to both sides as a sober reminder to what the alternative to peace could be," President Clinton said Monday. "So we have to hope and pray that will be the result."

There are already precedents for bad turning to good in the Middle East. One was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which, after it was put down, led to a strengthening of the US position in the region and the isolation of Saddam Hussein. That, in turn, generated new optimism and moderation, making Arab-Israeli talks in Madrid possible and eventually setting the stage for the 1993 interim peace agreement in Oslo, Norway.

"There's a chance that something like that could happen again," says Thomas Smerling, the Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum.

Regardless of any optimism remaining in Washington, it is obvious that the role of the US has shifted in the span of six days - from peace-broker to international fireman.

"We are going to try to defuse this," Albright said Tuesday.

Mr. Clinton has been in a dogged race to get the parties to complete some kind of deal before his term ends Jan. 20. His overall achievements in the Middle East have been great, analysts say, because he has significantly narrowed the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians and for the first time brought the subject of Jerusalem to the table for serious negotiation.

Progress had stalled, however, before the outbreak of violence, which was sparked when Ariel Sharon, a right-wing Israeli opposition leader, visited a holy site in Jerusalem that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews. A tentative cease-fire was broken Tuesday when Israeli security forces clashed with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The death toll has risen to more than 50. (Arab-Israeli disillusionment, page 6)

Joel Singer, a former Israeli negotiator for the Oslo accord, said the fighting has made it unlikely that Clinton, Mr. Barak, and Mr. Arafat could cobble together an agreement in the near future. "The chances of completing a deal under this administration are non-existent," he says. "What they can do now is cosmetic. They need to end the clashes."

Mr. Singer said the end of the Clinton presidency will certainly slow the process, but that the most immediate factor could be Barak's fragile government coalition.

In order to remain in power, Barak needs to form a new coalition in the Israeli parliament. One possibility was that he could do so by aligning with the Arab Israelis. But that is becoming unlikely because the Arab Israelis have been at the center of the violence, and the Israeli forces are trying to bring them under control.

"Clinton has almost two feet in his political grave and so does Barak," Singer says, echoing an overall sense of pessimism that has fallen over Washington regarding the Middle East.

But while the outlook may now seem bleak, the Palestinians could be slowly inching toward a better negotiating position. For one thing, the Israelis have received most of the blame for sparking the clashes.

The violence could remind Palestinians that they would rather make a deal with Barak, a moderate, than with the Likud party of Mr. Sharon.

The Palestinians have had success in the past negotiating after elections but before a US president's term is up, as they did with Ronald Reagan in 1988 when dialogue was opened between the US and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Jerome Segal, a University of Maryland professor and an expert on Jerusalem, is optimistic that an agreement could still be reached on the holy city, which was the main sticking point during Camp David peace talks this summer.

Both sides claim Jerusalem as the capital of their states.

Some critics of the Clinton administration have said that it was a mistake for the president to help put Jerusalem on the bargaining table. The result, they argue, is that the Palestinians are motivated to create unrest there and make it seem unmanageable in Israeli hands.

Mr. Segal, however, says that it will be more difficult for a future US president to help the two parties resolve Jerusalem and other issues once Clinton's term is up. He says neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore has displayed the flair for dealmaking that has allowed Clinton to work so effectively with such an intractable conflict.

But, then again, Clinton had the reputation of being uninterested in foreign policy when he first took office. Since then he has made it into one of his strengths.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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