ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir's hard-line pledges to his Likud Party gave the nascent United States peace process its first body blow. Those pledges appear to preempt the outcome of peace talks yet to begin. And they could easily lead the already hesitant Palestinians to stop exploring the options that were offered in the Israeli government's earlier proposal for elections in the West Bank and Gaza, US officials and private specialists say.
The Bush administration is publicly putting a brave face forward. But privately, US officials are keenly aware of the need to regroup quickly and move to keep the process on track. If they cannot, this year's progress in getting Palestinians and Israelis to focus on elections as a potential path to negotiations could be lost.
An administration insider says that the minimal task now is a concerted push to keep all of the parties, particularly the Palestinians, committed to the process, and to keep the extremists in each camp at bay.
A double whammy to the process, officials add, was the tragic Israeli bus crash, caused by a lone Palestinian, the day after Mr. Shamir's move last week. This incident, which claimed 14 lives, and the subsequent wave of anti-Arab violence by Israeli Jews add to the deepening sense of anger and fear among Israelis and Palestinians as local violence increases.
``There is real cannibalism taking place on both sides as well as the cross-community violence,'' says Judith Kipper, Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations.
``It's time for the US to go into action,'' she says, and offer ideas so as to get Israeli-Palestinian talks about the elections plan going. Until now, she says, the US has not made an offer of its own ideas to see what the parties, and now specifically the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), come up with.
This pro-action sentiment is shared among many specialists in and out of government. Samuel Lewis, a former US ambassador to Israel, on Friday told a seminar gathered at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the ``window of opportunity'' to get a serious peace process under way is only open for a short time. The United States should now do what it has been doing with ``maximum urgency'' to help the parties through that window before events in the region close it, he says.
``There are clearly two dynamics at work now,'' says a high-ranking US specialist. ``The extremes in both camps, fearing real movement, are trying to scuttle the process. This was clearly what happened with the Likud vote. There are also people wanting to get off the hook so they don't have to be the ones to take risks. This is standard practice in the peace process,'' he says, and Shamir's pledges have given the PLO an excuse to back out.
In this sense, he adds, the Likud vote and the escalating violence are ``a real test of people's sincere desire for peace.'' While the PLO has condemned the Likud decisions, US officials say they hope PLO leader Yasser Arafat will hold his fire to see what can be done.
Mr. Arafat even has the opportunity to seize the high ground, says one, by expressing condolences over the bus incident and repeating the PLO's desire to negotiate peace, for example. His whole diplomatic tack would be wasted if he were to pull back now, officials contend.
At the same time, US officials say Arafat faces the same type of pressure from his radicals to which Shamir succumbed. This and the perceived need to prove that Arafat's diplomacy is yielding results was probably behind recent press leaks about secret US discussions with the PLO's No. 2, Abu Iyad.
Those leaks set off a minor firestorm of protest in Washington from pro-Israel lobbyists and legislators complaining about Abu Iyad's past support of terrorism. US officials respond that they are going to have to talk with many people to bring the PLO along. This doesn't mean condoning their past acts, says one official, but it recognizes their shift in policy to oppose terrorism and their clout among Palestinians.
There is clearly hope in Washington that Labor Party leaders will stick with the elections initiative rather than throw the blame to Likud and pull out.
Ambassador Lewis estimates that Labor does not have the popular standing to risk new elections now on this issue and will remain in the governing coalition. This, he says, gives Prime Minister Shamir some short-term flexibility. Shamir can argue with some legitimacy that the government plan is unaffected by Likud pledges and be sure that Labor will not approve any changes in the government plan.
Martin Indyk, director of the Washington Institute for Near East policy, says Shamir will want to use that room to maneuver, because he still faces the immense pressures that forced him to show flexibility in the first place. ``It's in his interest to help the US keep the initiative alive,'' Mr. Indyk contends.
Indyk, Lewis, and several others just returned from an intensive week of consultations with Israeli and local Palestinian leaders. Indyk says that Shamir had no intention of yielding to the demands of Likud party hard-liners, but at the last moment discovered he did not have the votes to hold out.
Shamir then agreed that Palestinians in East Jerusalem would not be allowed to vote under the elections proposal, that Likud would never agree to return any of the West Bank and Gaza to ``foreign sovereignty,'' that elections could not take place until the intifadah (uprising) was ended and that Israeli settlements would continue to expand.
The most serious problem, US specialists say, is the ban on voting by East Jerusalem residents. Most of the potential Palestinian negotiators live there.
``And that is precisely why [Israeli Industry Minister] Ariel Sharon insisted on this,'' the administration insider says. ``He wants to derail the process.''
To keep the parties engaged, says the Washington Institute's Indyk, the US may want to focus its efforts on getting an agreed list of Palestinians who could begin talking to the Israelis about the elections idea. This, he and others say, is where the process was focusing before last week's Likud shocks. Prime Minister Shamir told Indyk and the other visiting Americans that Israel might be able to accept a list of Palestinians to discuss elections, if it were presented by the US or Egypt.
This could allow an opening for the US to prenegotiate the list with the PLO and Israel, says one source close to the administration. The PLO could claim it, while Israel would be free to ignore the PLO's role, he says.
One stumbling block here is that the PLO still wants Palestinians from outside the territories in the group, while Israel has said only Palestinians on the inside can participate.
Agreement here will be hard to achieve and will leave many basic issues to be negotiated, but it could serve to keep the process alive.
Correspondents traveling with Secretary of State James Baker III over the weekend were reportedly told by a government official that the US might also take a fresh look at proposals for an international peace conference, if the elections initiative flounders.