Escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may compel the Clinton administration to act more forcefully to protect the Middle East peace process from a mortal blow.
US officials are reluctant to make a high-profile foray to untangle the latest knot in the Mideast peace process without a firm prospect for progress.
The US - the lead Mideast mediator - has instead opted for low-key diplomacy, which it contends is the most effective way of persuading the two sides to retreat from violent confrontation.
"Our position is not to insert ourselves in the middle of this," says a United States official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Yet some experts assert that aggressive mediation by the American administration is now essential to salvage the peace process.
While the process has weathered previous violence, they say Israel's decision to begin building new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, followed by last Friday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and anti-Israeli riots on the West Bank appears to have created the most serious crisis since the sides signed the 1993 Oslo I accord on Palestinian self-rule.
"Why wait until things get worse? We are the mediator," says Judith Kipper, co-director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "The question for the Clinton administration is ... do they want to have a comprehensive peace or do they want to watch it slowly unravel?"
Big stakes for US
The success or failure of the peace process, most analysts agree, holds enormous stakes for the US.
A collapse of the Oslo accords, they say, would have consequences for US prestige and power beyond the Israeli-Palestinian feud. It could encourage anti-American sentiments in the oil-rich Middle East, weakening the region's pro-US governments, and increase threats to US interests and personnel.
"If the Americans do not prevent this crisis from deteriorating, they are going to lose their credibility," warns Mahmood Monshipouri, a Middle East expert at Alma College, in Alma, Mich.
The US has recognized those dangers in the past. After 80 people were killed in September in the last outbreak of unrest, US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross spent weeks cajoling the sides into resuming talks that led to an Israeli troop withdrawal from most of the West Bank town of Hebron in January.
But the experience was so frustrating that the administration now appears reluctant to send Mr. Ross back unless he can achieve results quickly.
Israelis and Palestinians are willing to meet but have adopted tough positions that make a quick resumption of talks doubtful. Also, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has declined to cut short an eight-day tour of Asia.
Some experts suggest that to break the deadlock, the US must publicly pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat to take steps to restore a minimal degree of confidence.
That means persuading Mr. Netanyahu to suspend construction of the new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians claim the eastern half of the city, which Israel annexed after the 1967 Middle East war, as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
They say it should be unchanged until Jerusalem's future is resolved in "final status" negotiations, which were to have started earlier this month.
The US, some experts say, must also press Arafat to fulfill his Oslo obligations. Most important is a crack-down on the Islamic group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of the Tel Aviv cafe that killed three and injured dozens. The attack came after Arafat released Hamas members from jail and met with its leaders, giving what Israeli officials charge is a "green light" to resume terrorism.
"We are seeing an exceptional degree of shyness," Ms. Kipper says of the US. "Whenever anybody takes measures that erode confidence, the big fat foot of the US needs to come down."
Administration officials deny they have failed to respond to the crisis and say President Clinton and senior officials have been working the telephones to persuade the sides to resume talks.
The most critical US statement in recent days came from Ross, when he said the Palestinian Authority needs to make a "100 percent effort" to fight terrorism and that "We'd like to see them [the Palestinians] do more."
Seeking face-to-face talks
But US officials insist that there is no substitute to face-to-face contacts between the Israelis and Palestinians. "They have to build confidence and trust and dealing with each other directly helps to do that," says one official.
Some critics contend the administration's responses to recent events may have contributed to the current crisis.
After issuing restrained criticism the plan to build new homes in East Jerusalem, they say, the US acted at odds with the entire United Nations, twice vetoing resolutions that condemned Israel for moving ahead with the project.
This undermined Arab confidence in the US as a fair mediator and bolstered anti-peace process elements, they say.