Mideast Peace Process Pivots on US Role

Shepherding the deal to completion could confer on Clinton the mantle of a great statesman

While President Clinton begins his second term with a diplomatic success, the bitter and protracted wrangling over the Israeli pullout from Hebron has given him a taste of how hard it will be to keep the Middle East peace process on track.

The going will almost certainly become rougher as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat grapple in coming months with issues far more contentious than the Hebron pact reached last week. They include the full extent of an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank, and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood.

Because of the potential for deeper discord, some experts say the United States will have to intensify its mediation, something the Clinton administration is reluctant to do.

Without such a commitment from the US, these experts warn, the chances are slim that Mr. Clinton will succeed in shepherding to fruition the 1993 Oslo accords on Palestinian self-rule.

"The further down this road they move, the more the US has a stake in trying to prevent the process from collapse," says William Quandt, a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The circumstances require more outside involvement."

For Clinton, a signatory of the Oslo accords, steering them to full implementation could confer on him the mantle of a world statesman with which he aspires to leave office in 2000. Failure would cast an indelible stain on his foreign policy record, undermine the US status as the region's main international power-broker, and risk a reignition of the Middle East's most intractable conflict.

Hebron showed Clinton that if he wants the peace process to advance, the US must play a more active role than in the past.

Following the election last May of Mr. Netanyahu, a leading opponent of the Oslo accords signed by the previous Israeli government, the US mostly confined itself to cajoling and pressuring the sides to move ahead with an agreement on Hebron. Under the Oslo accords, Israelies were to have withdrawn from all but 20 percent by last March.

But as each side sought bargaining levers - new security guarantees and assurances that the other would comply with its undertakings - the US was compelled to formulate compromises. US special envoy Dennis Ross eventually offered the deadline of mid-1998 for the completion of Israeli troop pullouts from other West Bank areas that overcame the deadlock on Hebron.

"There obviously was a very different kind of American role in this negotiation than has been the case previously," Mr. Ross acknowledged at a State Department briefing recently. "We were in fact a broker, we were in fact a mediator."

He added that "it's not the kind of role that we want to be playing." It would be better, he explained, for the sides to resolve outstanding matters themselves. But some experts say the US will have no choice but to intensify its mediation.

"The US is a party to the negotiations now and as the most difficult issues come forward, the agony will be worse," says Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank. "The really critical issues that will define a final settlement will be pushed to the end."

One of those issues, experts say, will be Israel's right to determine which parts of the West Bank it can retain as military areas when it completes a final round of troop redeployments by mid-1998. That has already raised deep concerns among the Palestinians over how much territory they will eventually control.

Uri Raanan, a professor of international relations at Boston University, says it will up to the US to ensure that the amount of territory Israel retains is reasonable.

Similarly, he says, the US will have to act as a "fire extinguisher" in unresolved matters relegated because of their contentiousness to an American-drafted "Note for the Record" that accompanied the Hebron agreement.

The note specifies Israeli undertakings to negotiate on a safe passage for Palestinians between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, an airport and harbor in Gaza and economic issues; the Palestinians are obliged to eliminate from the PLO charter a clause calling for the destruction of Israel, crackdown on anti-Israeli militants, surrender suspected terrorists to Israel and reduce the size of their police force.

Finally, the most rancorous matters are to be discussed in "final status" talks due to begin within two months.

These include the final borders of the Palestinian territory, the question of Palestinian statehood, the return of refugees, and the future of Jerusalem.

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