US Must Play Role In Middle East Peace

HAVE events since the Hebron massacre totally punctured the vision of peace between Israelis and Palestinians that seemed so close last September? Can that vision be put together again, and made into a reality?

I believe that the peace can still be won - but only if the Clinton administration acts fast and effectively to win it. No other party but the United States can achieve this at this point.

Here's what the president and his team should do:

* Spell out America's own ideas on the shape and urgency of the peace. There is a dangerous myth in Washington politics that ``only'' direct negotiations between Arabs and Israelis can bring about a worthwhile agreement. Direct talks are good. But they have never been enough - including in the present negotiation.

The most effective agreements between Arabs and Israelis were those reached in the l970s. Neither Henry Kissinger nor President Jimmy Carter hesitated to spell out, when necessary, the US position on substance and timing.

But the White House remains dangerously hands-off. That refusal to inject the US's own views has to end.

* Be prepared to play real politics with Israel. All politics is local: that's true in Israel, too. Sometimes, Israeli leaders can't see much further than the next vote in the Knesset.

Premier Yitzhak Rabin has to understand that accommodation with the Palestinians is a two-way street. The US government, as Israel's friend, needs to tell him that quite firmly - and to back this up with real carrots and sticks. That worked for Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Carter as well as George Bush, who by hanging tough on the loan guarantees helped to bring a pro-peace government to power in Israel.

But if American aid flows to Israel unlinked to Israel's performance on peacemaking, then the incentive for peace and the credibility of the whole peace effort will continue to crumble.

* Use American aid to entice Israeli settlers out of the occupied territories. Washington has always maintained that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are an obstacle to peace. (All other major governments, and the United Nations, still judge them actually illegal.) But successive administrations have done little to help remove this obstacle.

Many, probably most, of the settlers moved to the occupied lands for economic reasons. The president should target a large chunk of US aid and loan guarantees to entice these families back inside Israel, and can ``front load'' this incentive to get the process started soon.

* Help Palestinians build democratic institutions. The Palestinian negotiators have massively lost the confidence of their public. The people in the West Bank and Gaza have seen no improvements in their lives as a result of the talks - rather, the opposite. They need to see improvement, soon. They are also asking for some real control over their own destiny. Blinded by pro-Israeli interests, American politicians have never analyzed Palestinian politics on its own terms. But anyone sitting at a negotiating table is only as strong as his or her mandate.

For years, the State Department thought that intellectuals from the occupied areas could build their own leadership, separate from the Palestine Liberation Organization. They did not understand that people like Hanan Ashrawi or Faisal Husseini took their mandate precisely from the PLO!

And now that the PLO is at the table, our diplomats still don't see that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, too, is only as strong as his mandate - and that this comes primarily from the residents of the occupied lands. Those ``resident'' Palestinians are mad at Mr. Arafat for his bumbling in the negotiations. It does not help the credibility of the American-sponsored peace talks when Palestinians hear him elaborately lauded by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher. What the administration should say is that yes, the PLO chairman is the only person to negotiate with now - but that the US is also committed to the holding of real Palestinian elections this summer, and to the establishment of lasting Palestinian democratic institutions.

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