Mideast Needs Presidential Push

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has tried to inject some tough love into US peacemaking efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Suddenly, she is shuttling between European capitals in a high-profile attempt to push the peace process forward.

Ms. Albright has repeatedly demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put forward a "significant and credible" plan for the much-delayed next phase of troop redeployments. She also asked Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to implement new arrangements so the US and Israel can better monitor Palestinian security efforts.

This attempt at out-of-area shuttle diplomacy is a tactical shift, not a major policy change, aimed at bolstering US credibility and providing triage to a still-deteriorating process. Unfortunately, Albright's mid-January goal for resuming full implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement will not be met unless the White House plays a more active role. Next month's tentative talks are a positive sign, but White House involvement must be more regular and sustained.

Prospects for progress rest largely on the willingness of Netanyahu and Arafat to take risks for peace. It also depends on Clinton's willingness to get more personally involved.

US policymakers are between a rock and a hard place. Albright's team unfailingly invokes the Oslo accords, yet US policy has walked a line between selective endorsement and benign neglect. The Oslo ideal may have died with Yitzhak Rabin, Palestinian bombers, and Har Homa, but it remains a reality on the ground - and the US is in no position to abandon the only deal around.

Jettisoning her earlier hands-off approach, Albright's efforts reflect a change in favor of hard-nosed bargaining - la James Baker. It's no secret that Mr. Baker has had long discussions with Albright, and that she has retained his Mideast advisers.

Yet, the former secretary of state only sought concessions on the modalities of a process - and he was backed fully by President Bush. In contrast, Albright wants Israel to commit to a substantive land withdrawal - without Clinton's unequivocal backing.

Netanyahu knows he can call Albright's bluff because Clinton has proved unwilling to commit his time and prestige. After reelection, Clinton hinted at a new policy of assertive even-handedness. He criticized Israeli settlement activity and said Israel was building "mistrust." But the administration has since backed down and avoided confrontation with Israel's supporters in the US.

This is a mistake: The US Jewish community no longer speaks with one voice on Mideast issues. The administration should recognize the increasing pluralization of the "Israel lobby" and build stronger ties to pro-Oslo organizations.

Albright cut her teeth in the Carter administration. But not only does Clinton lack Carter's long-standing personal commitment to Middle East peace, Vice President Al Gore apparently has stepped in to oppose those in the administration who want a more assertive policy. This political interference from the White House will ultimately save "Bibi" from a Yitzhak Shamir-style run-in with the powers that be inside the Beltway.

Though tactics may change, the long view of US Mideast diplomacy shows enduring continuity. Current US support for a "security-for-land" formula is only a semantic variant of the "land-for-peace" principle that stretches all the way back to LBJ.

If Albright truly wants to realize her stated hope that 1998 be a year of renewed progress toward Mideast peace, she may accomplish more by shuttling between Foggy Bottom and the White House to get the administration to match her tough words with tough action. Washington can't dictate the terms of a solution, but neither does its influence fall on deaf ears in the Middle East - leaving plenty of space for the US to effect positive change.

* S.B. Lasensky served in New York as a public affairs officer for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1993 to 1995. He is a PhD candidate in political science at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

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