US Hustles to Avoid a Mideast War

Criticized for not acting sooner, Clinton persuades factions to meet in Washington

The worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades has presented the Clinton administration with a full-blown foreign-policy crisis as it struggles to placate both sides and help hold together the Mideast peace process that White House officials had counted one of their greatest accomplishments.

The relative peace that's prevailed in the region since the end of the 1991 Gulf war is now in danger of being shattered, say experts in the US. One urgent diplomatic task for America: Focus attention on the progress that the Israeli and Palestinian peoples stand to lose if hard-line suspicion triumphs over accommodation.

"Obviously this is a delicate and dangerous situation," says Robert Lieber, a Mideast expert here Georgetown University. "But all the major actors have a shared interest in avoiding a real disaster."

Such shared interest will be put to a test early this week at a Washington summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan, and perhaps Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. US officials worked the phones furiously for days to arrange the meeting, which they called a vital step in getting the peace process moving again. "It is our responsibility to do whatever we can to protect the peace process and move it forward," said President Clinton in a Rose Garden appearance yesterday morning. "This is such a moment."

The eruption of violence that followed Israel's decision to open a tourist tunnel exit adjacent to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem could hardly have come at a worse time, as far as the Clinton administration is concerned. To this point foreign policy has been an issue of only muted import in the Dole-Clinton presidential campaign. But now, with the election only five weeks away, the volatile Middle East has exploded again. The White House must simultaneously work to end the crisis and defend itself against criticism that greater involvement by US officials could have prevented the explosion in the first place.

Ever since Likud Prime Minister Netanyahu took office last spring and broke with the peacemaking policies of his Labor Party predecessors, frustration has been obviously building among Palestinians. Yet the administration did little to address these frustrations, complain critics. The White House stood by in relative silence, complain some experts, as the Netanyahu government undertook such potentially provocative actions as defense of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. In addition, Netanyahu failed to redeploy Israeli troops from the West Bank town of Hebron in accordance with the Oslo peace accords.

"There have been many opportunities where a major private initiative from the administration could have at least put the Israeli government on notice that it didn't have the indefinite indulgence of the US government for what it was doing," says Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago.

The administration also might have pushed harder for Congress to release $10 million in economic aid for the Palestinians, say critics. Yet it didn't - perhaps worried about the domestic electoral implications of such an action.

"This can't be taken out of the context of the US elections," says Shibley Telhami, director of Mideast studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Others say that US culpability in the crisis has been overblown. It's true that the Netanyahu government has not been especially adroit in its first months in office, says Professor Lieber. But Israel has taken great risks for peace, through such actions as arming a Palestinian police force. Sharp US criticism might only make Israelis feel more vulnerable, and defensive.

"Netanyahu is not going to want a breach with the United States over this," Lieber says. "The US needs to be a catalyst bringing the parties together."

Whatever the actions of past months, the issue now is getting the peace process back on track. The tunnel was a spark that lit Palestinian frustrations. It's these frustrations that need addressing, more than the spark itself.

Clearly, the Mideast status quo is not now a stable one, says Richard Haass, a Bush administration Mideast policymaker who is now a foreign studies director at the Brookings Institution. Palestinians see the hope of autonomy lit by past agreements dimming in the distance. Israelis, appalled by TV footage of Palestinian policemen firing on Israeli soldiers, worry that the accommodations they've already made are threatening their security.

Yet it's not a time for ambitious peace process moves, continues Mr. Haass. Right now, "The US has to promote a modest peace process of political and economic change," he says.

That means urging the Palestinian leadership to do everything it can to deal with the security threat to Israel and to resist calls from the rank-and-file for a new intifadah (uprising). It means quietly pushing the Netanyahu government to make some unilateral action, perhaps dealing with settlement activity, that demonstrates to Mr. Arafat that it is a trustworthy partner in peace deals.

The real cost of the recent violence might be to undermine the very concept of cooperative autonomy for the Palestinians, Haass warns. "The issue is not filling in the tunnel," he says. "What you need to do is change the context."

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