As Mideast broker, US losing trust

With breakdown of peace talks, Arab confidence ebbs and calls mount for other nations to lead future talks.

After years of trying to broker a Mideast peace agreement - spending as much time on it as any other foreign-policy issue - President Clinton now confronts the possibility of leaving office with US influence in the process greatly diminished.

The question now ricocheting from the West Bank to Moscow to the United Nations is: Should the US even be the primary broker in the negotiations anymore?

The top negotiator for the Palestinians is pushing for other international powers to get involved - including China, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union. His call reflects a widely held belief among Arabs in the region that the US is too pro-Israel to be trusted as an honest broker.

While the White House is not interested in giving up its role as lead mediator, some analysts suggest it may be a good idea to add other voices to the process. They say it could inject a new sense of trust - though there's a risk that additional viewpoints might only complicate matters.

"In the short term, we need other ways to build confidence than the Oslo process," which the Clinton administration has been brokering for seven years, says Jon Alterman, Mideast specialist at the United States Institute of Peace here.

"Other players may be key," he says, adding: "I don't think this all has to be a US show from start to finish."

Indeed, other players are trying to find a voice in the process, which is now on ice. Russia President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that he wanted Russia and Europe to play a greater role in Middle East peace. And the United Nations' Secretary-General Kofi Annan helped move the parties to the summit at Sharm-el-Sheikh Oct. 16.

Mr. Alterman says it's sometimes helpful to get other parties involved, if for no other reason than that an "unwieldy, messy" process involving a whole host of players might eventually force the two sides back to a smaller, more productive venue.

Loss of confidence

Of more immediate concern is the Palestinians' apparent loss of confidence in the US, a sentiment no doubt buttressed by Wednesday's overwhelming vote in the US House to condemn Palestinians for the renewed violence. The nonbinding resolution expressed the House's "solidarity with the state and people of Israel at this time of crisis."

From outward appearances, President Clinton looks to have less and less influence these days. His hard-fought summit in Egypt failed to produce a cease-fire with any real grip, and his Herculean attempts at closing a peace deal have been reduced to simply finding a way to stop the violence.

At the time of writing, he was still unable to get a commitment from the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet with him separately in Washington.

Nevertheless, several Mideast observers - and most important, the White House - see no alternative than to have Washington continue in its role as the lead go-between.

"The Palestinians are periodically unhappy with the US. On the other hand, we're the only ones with any ability to get anything [in the way of concessions] from Israel," says Bernard Reich, a Mideast expert at George Washington University here.

"We are the best of the lousy options," he says, adding that all the other partners suggested by the Palestinians are problematic for the Israelis.

That's a sentiment shared by the White House, which says it has no intention of stepping aside or just waiting things out.

"We believe we have earned a unique place in the peace process by the amount of time that this president, and other presidents, have devoted to it over the years," says National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Don't expect Mr. Clinton to give up, he says. "I don't think we envision changing our role," although he admits that it has "changed over the years, based on the needs of the parties."

Evolving role

It's worth remembering that the United States was not even involved in the secret Oslo negotiations, until the historic peace deal was almost ready to be signed on the South Lawn of the White House in 1993. At other times, other players have assumed prominent roles - such as the 1991 Madrid talks sponsored by both the US and the Soviet Union, which helped pave the way to Oslo.

Even during the Clinton years, the US role has evolved from a direct go-between, when former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not talking with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to more of a "facilitator" between two parties who talk directly.

Joel Singer, who negotiated on behalf of the Israelis during the Oslo accords, says that the Palestinian call for new partners has nothing to do with the United States or the job Clinton has done.

"I don't think Arafat has a particular problem with the US, as it has a problem with Israel," he says. "He doesn't want to deal with Israel any longer."

But other analysts say the Palestinians feel the US has unfairly blamed them for the recent violence, and that Clinton has persistently lauded Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and chastised Mr. Arafat.

The challenge, according to Mr. Singer, is to get Arafat back on track.

"If this is impossible, then there is nothing that the US president can do. All we can do is wait for someone else to replace Arafat, or wait for a few generations until the mood will change."

Considering the situation on the ground, and the internal politics that are driving both Mr. Barak and Arafat away from peace, it may be that the best Clinton can hope for is some restoration of calm.

Eventually, says William Quandt, a US negotiator with former President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, "the US will be back in the middle. But for Clinton, the moment is gone."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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