Frayed Peace Forcing Strong US Hand

Albright's current Mideast trip - and NATO actions in Bosnia - signal robust US role.

After months of low-key diplomacy that produced scant results, the United States has begun moving with newfound urgency to avert the collapse of its peace initiatives in the Balkans and the Middle East.

Washington's concern for its peacemaking agenda is underscored by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's decision to proceed on her first Mideast trip despite Sept. 4 suicide bombings by Islamic radicals in Israel.

The second such attack in five weeks makes it even harder for Ms. Albright to revive the Israeli-Palestinian plan for Palestinian self-rule. Doing so will be the toughest challenge she has faced. But - just as with the more aggressive use of NATO troops in Bosnia in recent weeks - she and the White House have apparently concluded that robust action in the Mideast can't be avoided.

"The situation has deteriorated, and a sense of hopelessness might take over," says State Department spokesman James Foley.

The moves mean risking more US resources and prestige on two of the world's most nettlesome disputes. But with the potential for violence growing in both regions, the White House appears to have no other option.

In both cases, time seems to have been the decisive factor.

With the GOP-run Congress demanding withdrawal from Bosnia of the US-led NATO peacekeeping force by July, as scheduled, the administration has less than a year to overcome huge hurdles to implementing the 1995 Dayton peace deal. A Bosnian Serb power struggle and the coming winter are looming large over peace potential.

"This is the moment, between now and December, to take whatever bold moves we are going to take," says Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the Mideast, the refusals of the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority to abide by the 1993 Oslo peace deal are fueling widespread ire, boosting extremists who resist the peace process.

The administration's prior reliance on quiet diplomacy - many experts say inattention in the case of Bosnia - may have contributed to the worsening of both crises.

"Both agreements are in serious trouble," says Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor of international relations. "A more aggressive American role ... makes a difference in the extent to which things get out of hand."

Threat to Clinton, US interests

The failure of either plan would mar the legacy President Clinton seeks to leave as a world statesman when his second term ends in 2001. It would also provide ammunition to the GOP foe of Vice President Al Gore's expected presidential run. Furthermore, the collapse of either process could jeopardize US security interests.

All-out Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting could unhinge the troubled coalition of moderate Arab states the US has maintained since the Gulf War to contain Iran and Iraq and ensure the flow of Gulf oil.

In Bosnia, renewed fighting could jeopardize Mr. Clinton's capstone foreign policy initiative - expansion of NATO to include the former Communist states of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.

Senator Biden, during a recent interview in Sarajevo, said some senators are apprehensive about costs of NATO expansion. Concerns could grow, he said, endangering a vote on admitting new members, should the NATO-led operation in Bosnia fail.

In Israel, progress was being achieved until January. But Israeli-Palestinian cooperation collapsed in March after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the building of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, coveted by Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The White House sought the help of Jordan and Egypt to break the stalemate and then tried itself to restore Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on combating Islamic extremists. But the deadlock hardened.

Few alternatives to all-out action

Although she was in private contact with each side, Albright declined to intervene until there was a prospect for progress. But those prospects eroded further with the Jerusalem bombings, retaliatory Israeli closures of Arab areas, and Mr. Netanyahu's decision Friday to suspend an Israeli troop withdrawal from areas of the West Bank.

For Albright, the alternative to a diplomatic rescue mission, with uncertain results, was the collapse of the peace process.

"From the administration's perspective, it's important not to let this process drift interminably," says Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

While reluctant to dive into the Mideast, Albright has played a decisive role in trying to kick-start the Bosnian peace process.

A recent policy review concluded that unless the impasse breaks, fighting could resume after the NATO-led Stabilization Force leaves. The finding helped Albright overcome Pentagon resistance to a more-aggressive use of SFOR. In July, SFOR, for the first time, arrested two indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals, one of whom died in a shootout. It has since backed Serb Republic President Biljana Plavsic in a power struggle with her predecessor, Radovan Karadzic. The outcome, however, remains uncertain.

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