THE 10th round of the Middle East peace talks ended June 30 with both the Israeli and Arab sides in a deadlock. It has been 20 months since the talks, sponsored by the United States and Russia, began - and they are mired in pessimism and anger. The US may be the only player still capable of rescuing the peace process. But its role and the angle it will take under the Clinton administration are still unclear. Last week the State Department put forward a new peace plan officials said is designed to keep th e process between the Israelis and the Palestinians moving; this week Dennis Ross, the head of the US team, is going to the region.
The plan is the first advocacy position the US has taken since the talks began in 1991. Importantly, it is the first real hint of where the Clinton White House stands. The Bush administration cultivated at least a perception that the US would be an honest broker; forceful disapproval expressed by then-Secretary of State James Baker III of Israeli settlements on the West Bank reinforced this.
The Clinton administration seems to be changing the rules. The new US plan does not offer needed continuity with previous positions. This is worrisome. The confidence and trust of all parties requires a fair process. The Monitor reports (Page 3) that the new US plan changes the terms of reference that the original peace process is based on. Rather than using the US "letter of assurance" to the Palestinians, which brought the Arabs to the table in 1991, the new US plan instead invokes a "letter of invitat ion" it sent the parties. Under new terms of reference, the crucial spirit of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which state that territory acquired by force must be relinquished ("land for peace") could be reinterpreted so that whatever is decided by the process fulfills the UN resolutions. This pressures the weak party and opens the door for expediency and might, rather than law, to dictate a solution.
The Palestinians are understandably dismayed by the plan. Israel at first expressed anger, but tellingly now supports it.
The Middle East peace process was a significant achievment of US foreign policy in recent years, mainly for its spirit of fairness. It will be sad if the White House begins to signal that the weaker party must bend. A resolution of the Palestinian problem is central to an overall Arab-Israeli peace resolution. This must occur according to international law, the true spirit of 242 and 338, and by building on the progress made by US policy.