MANY in Washington are breathing a lot easier with the quick release of an American relief worker abducted last week in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. Such an incident could easily throw the Bush administration's nascent peace effort off track. Indeed, the abduction only reinforced concern here over the rising level of violence and emotion both in Israel and the occupied territories.
Violence between Israelis and Palestinians is intensifying, notably with increased vigilantism by Israeli settlers. Violence and division within each community is also on the rise.
``There is the clear danger that events on the ground may outpace our best efforts to find peace,'' says a high-ranking United States official.
``You have people on both extremes that are nervous that a peace process might get going. They're trying to undermine the middle ground,'' the official says.
``This adds even more importance to having a focus for people in the middle to work on,'' he says. ``That is why dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis and the proposal for elections in the territories are so important now.''
Judith Kipper, who follows the Middle East for the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, says part of the problem is that both the Israelis and the Palestinians are ``too weak and too scared to act on their own.''
``Without an active process,'' she says, ``the two communities are turning on themselves.'' Ms. Kipper says she would like to see the US pick up the pace of its efforts to help both parties move.
But she adds that despite the danger from increased tensions, it may be that Israelis and Palestinians need to be fed up enough with the current situation to negotiate seriously.
US officials say key leaders in Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) see the need to engage in a peace process.
But as one specialist puts it, ``people on both sides are too used to taking minimal risks and asking the other party to move first.''
Another insider says that in this sense, the violence and tumult in both camps show that the proposal for elections in the West Bank and Gaza has created a lot of pressure for movement. ``The challenge is now for the US to keep working both sides, probing and increasing the pressure, especially on the PLO to engage,'' he says.
The PLO is showing signs of movement, he and others say. PLO leader Yasser Arafat has not flatly rejected the elections idea, and he has begun what United States specialists say is a familiar process of trying to restructure it to fit his goals. Most recently, he has suggested a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians outside of Israel to discuss elections.
Plenty of problems remain with Mr. Arafat's most recent ideas, US officials say.
For example, Israel's government will not now accept a clear PLO role in naming representatives to the talks. Nor will Israel accept the inclusion of representatives of Palestinians outside the territories as Arafat wants.
Nor are he and the Israeli leadership close on the immediate aim of elections or their purpose. But ``the important thing about these ideas is that Arafat doesn't want to say no,'' the administration insider says.
``The fact that the US has accepted the election plan as the basis for action has shifted the onus to the PLO,'' a senior Arab diplomat here explains.
``Arafat sees the Israeli idea as an effort to buy time and divide the Palestinians. But he doesn't want to look undemocratic by blocking elections, since his whole strategy now is to play the diplomatic game.'' As this diplomat sees it, the problem is that everybody, including the US, is being overcautious.
One promising development, US officials say, is that the Soviets are also willing to discuss the elections idea. In two days of recent US-Soviet regional talks, more than half the discussion was on the elections proposal.
The Soviets did not press the idea of an international peace conference, which they earlier championed. They were still just probing, US officials say, but were more flexible than in the past, suggesting follow-up talks at the United Nations.