AS Secretary of State Warren Christopher begins a tour of the Middle East Feb. 17, his first trip abroad since taking over the State Department, concern is growing among both Arab governments and Arab-American leaders about the future of the Middle East peace process.
Mr. Christopher will visit Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait in an initial test of the Clinton administration's ability to handle this thorny foreign policy issue.
But the secretary is likely to hit two obstacles at every stop:
* The dispute over Israel's deportation of 415 Palestinians Dec. 17 from the occupied territories for their alleged connection to Hamas and other radical Islamic groups.
* Doubts among Arabs that the Clinton administration, given its actions on the deportation issue and its appointments to key positions, will be able to function as an honest broker in the peace process.
The next round of talks was expected to open in April. But the Palestinian delegation now says it will not return to the table until all the deportees have been returned home.
"There are insurmountable differences right now, and it's going to take a more serious commitment from the Clinton administration," says Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab-Americans and a close adviser to the Palestinian delegation. "There are doubts out there as to whether the new administration is committed to the same set of assurances and the same process" as the Bush administration.
When the talks began in Madrid in 1991, bringing Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians together for the first time, the Bush administration had already won Arabs' confidence through elaborate letters of assurance and commitments to principles such as the exchange of land for peace. The talks went eight rounds without results and with many threats to boycott over seemingly miniscule procedural issues.
Now the process has been stymied by the deportations. A day after the expulsions, the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 799 called on Israel to return all of the expelleesimmediately. To avoid further UN actions, the United States and Israel agreed Feb. 1 that Israel would allow 101 of the expellees to return immediately and the rest within one year.
On Feb. 12, the Security Council called Israel's move a positive step and urged it to return the remaining expellees "as soon as possible" while asking all concerned parties to resume talks. Palestinian view
Resolution 799 "has to be implemented," says Marwan Muasher, a spokesman for the Jordanian delegation.
"The deportee issue is crucial. The Arab street is going to look at this carefully. All parties must see the US as an honest broker."
After meeting with administration officials, Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation, told reporters that "[Resolution] 799 has to be implemented to ensure the rule of law in our region.... We have reached a moment of truth." She said the US, by endorsing Israel's move, had accepted the concept of deportation.
One Clinton official disagrees. "We said that we don't support deportations as a punishment.... And we have reaffirmed our commitment to the process begun in Madrid in 1991," he says.
But Christopher's efforts to solve this issue could be frustrated by the Arab perception that the Clinton White House is tilting toward Israel. That view has been underpinned not only by the US endorsement of Israel's partial solution on the expulsion issue, but also by key appointments. Controversial appointments
While Christopher's appointment and the retention of Edward Djerejian as the State Department's Near East chief pleased Arabs, they express concern about two appointments: Samuel Lewis as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Unit; and Martin Indyk as White House adviser on the Middle East, sitting on the National Security Council.
Mr. Lewis served as ambassador to Israel in the early 1980s and is seen by both Arabs and Israel as a good friend of the Jewish state.
Mr. Indyk, who was born in Britain and only became a US citizen months ago, headed the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Before that, he worked at the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby.
"Of course these appointments are a source of concern," says one Arab diplomat. "One hopes that US interests in the region are beyond the interests of a few individuals."
Some Arabs also say that the pro-Israel rhetoric of the Clinton campaign, and the subsequent appointments, are partially responsible for Israel's tougher stand on the Palestinians. "The campaign rhetoric," Ms. Ashrawi says, "sent signals to Israel that they have more leeway now."
The Palestinians also are becoming more demanding, seeking a binding time frame for the talks, a more active US role, and a reiteration of the assurances made by the Bush team.
Despite the problems, there are strong pressures favoring the resumption of talks. Egypt and Saudi Arabia reportedly are urging the Palestinians to return to the table. Syria is leaning toward participation.