ANALYSTS long have warned that despite slow, steady progress in Middle East peace talks, a serious risk remains that the peace process could collapse. The greatest threat, however, may not come from Islamic or Jewish extremists, Yitzhak Rabin's reluctance to compromise, or Yasser Arafat's autocratic leadership style; it may come from United States government policies.
A sense is growing in Israel that an independent Palestinian state is inevitable. All but a handful of the world's governments support such a ``two-state solution.'' The Clinton administration remains adamantly opposed to Palestinian statehood, however. The Palestinians are only asking for the West Bank and Gaza - just 23 percent of Palestine and less than half of what the United Nations granted them in 1947. President Clinton, however, says that even this is too much.
Indeed, Mr. Clinton's is the first US administration to imply that the West Bank and Gaza are ``disputed'' territories, insinuating that the Israelis and Palestinians have equal claim to the land, rather than retain the view of the international community: that the two areas are territories under foreign military occupation. The US even abstained on a segment of a recent UN Security Council resolution because it used the phrase ``occupied Palestinian territories.''
The Clinton administration also has intimated that Arab East Jerusalem and its environs, seized by Israel along with the rest of the West Bank in 1967, should remain exclusively part of Israel. This is counter to the position taken by every previous administration and reiterated in several UN Security Council resolutions. Even Palestinians do not want to see Jerusalem redivided with barbed wire and sentry posts as it was 30 years ago; but no Palestinian can accept an agreement that denies them equal rights to what is their capital city as well.
Most observers recognize that one of the major obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace is the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. However, the Clinton administration, also in a reversal of policy from past administrations, has not opposed the expansion of existing settlements and has refused to declare them illegal. Although previous UN Security Council resolutions have called for the immediate withdrawal of such settlements, the US insists that their final status should not even be discussed for at least two years.
This tactic gives the Israeli government time to create facts on the ground by colonizing even more of the West Bank. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has blocked the UN from sending in peacekeeping forces to protect Palestinians from extremist settlers - armed and trained by the Israeli government - who routinely terrorize the population. More provocative actions by right-wing colonists could easily create a Palestinian backlash that could scuttle the peace process.
Clinton has even bypassed a US law that requires the administration to deduct the costs of additional Jewish development in the occupied territories from the controversial $10 billion American loan guarantees to Israel signed in 1992: He has simply increased aid to Israel by the same amount subtracted from the loan.
Given the relative weakness of the Israeli peace movement compared with Israel's right wing, domestic pressure is inadequate to force the Rabin government to take the needed steps for peace: putting Israel in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions and granting Palestinians their independence. The only truly effective counterpressure must come from the US, which provides the military, economic, and diplomatic support for Israeli occupation forces. Members of the Israeli negotiating team in Washington have privately asked the Clinton administration to openly push Mr. Rabin to compromise further to give him sufficient political cover to make the needed concessions. But the White House has refused.
Some apologists for the Clinton administration claim that pressure from the US Jewish community accounts for the hard-lined position. According to a recent poll by the American Jewish Congress, however, a sizable majority of American Jews support Palestinian statehood. Similarly, several prominent Jews in the Clinton administration, some with ties to the Israeli peace movement, are quite chagrined at the president's swing to the right.
As with his predecessors' policies toward Central America, Southern Africa, and Southeast Asia, it may require an outcry from ordinary Americans before Clinton's policy changes. Without such a change, however, the remarkable progress of the past year may come to a tragic halt. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.