A Piecemeal Peace Deal? US Faces Limits on Role

Clinton, meeting with Arafat today, weighs cost of tough line on Arabs, Israelis against cost of continued deadlock.

Summits between American presidents and the antagonists in the Middle East peace process are usually adorned by ceremonial trappings designed to reward progress and cajole cooperation.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be finding his reception this week by the White House as chilly as the Arctic air gripping the capital.

He was not accommodated in Blair House, the plush guest quarters opposite the White House. There were no news conferences scheduled with President Clinton, no state dinner. Instead of a working lunch with Mr. Clinton after the first of two meetings on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu was taken by Vice President Al Gore to a basement cafeteria.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who meets Clinton today, is to get slightly better treatment, including a VIP tour of the Holocaust Museum aimed at boosting his appreciation of Israel's yearning for security.

The message to both men is obvious: Clinton is deeply unhappy, especially with Netanyahu, over the year-long, violence-ridden impasse in US efforts to broker an end to the Middle East's most enduring conflict.

But beyond the display of presidential pique, it remains unclear if Clinton can save an initiative that will help define the future of American influence in the Middle East and his own legacy as a world statesman.

"There are obvious political limits to what the administration is ready to do or can do," says Amatzia Baram, a senior fellow at the US Institute for Peace, a Washington think tank. "It is maneuvering within these limits. The question is how ready the administration is to take political risks. If you fail, you pay a very heavy price."

For the moment, it seems Clinton is sticking with his cautious strategy of seeking incremental progress, proposing a new plan for a phased Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank, each step hinging on reciprocal Palestinian actions. He also wants to accelerate final talks on Palestinian self-rule and the future of Jerusalem.

Though the two are not scheduled to meet, Netanyahu's stay overlaps by a day with Mr. Arafat's, so they could be brought together should the administration engineer a breakthrough. That appears unlikely.

"We have a lot of work to do still," concedes a senior US official.

Prior to this week's talks, US mediation was badly adrift. It has been unable to move Arafat to meet Israeli demands that he crush Palestinian radicals. Nor has it won a "time out" in Jewish settlement expansion or an Israeli troop pullout from enough of the West Bank to satisfy the Palestinians.

Each side blames the other for the deadlock, alleging a failure to fulfill the 1993 Oslo accords on Palestinian self-rule.

Clinton's challenge has become even tougher following the exit from the Israeli Cabinet this month of former Foreign Minister David Levy, which left Netanyahu's coalition in the grip of hard-liners.

The Cabinet has set more conditions for West Bank withdrawal and is limiting itself to returning no more than 36 percent. The Palestinians want 90 percent. Reinforcing the Israeli stand is the enormous political clout wielded by Jewish American groups and their allies in Congress.

Netanyahu spoke after arriving Monday to evangelical Christians sympathetic to his resistance to territorial concessions. He then met with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and drummed up support among other key Republicans yesterday.

A failure to end the impasse leaves Clinton having to pressure both sides to accept unpalatable concessions. That means a crackdown on Islamic radicals by Arafat, a halt to Jewish settlement expansion by Netanyahu, and from both, flexibility on Israeli pullouts from the West Bank, experts say.

"US policy is ... trying somehow to satisfy everybody. But you cannot satisfy everybody," Dr. Baram asserts.

A more aggressive US approach carries significant risks, including strengthening Palestinian and Israeli extremists. Furthermore, many American Jews oppose pressuring Netanyahu, and an attempt by Clinton to do so could raise frictions with Congress on other foreign-policy issues.

Still, some experts say that the price of allowing the deadlock to deepen is greater, with radicals on both sides poised to exploit the vacuum with violence. That would destabilize the region, jeopardizing US interests there. Some analysts say that with the potential costs so high, Clinton should adopt a more activist strategy.

"Clinton no longer has to run for anything, and he has more freedom to maneuver in the second year of his second term than in the fourth year," says University of Virginia Prof. William Quandt, a former Mideast peace negotiator. "If this administration is serious about wanting to help resolve this conflict, it had better start moving quickly with a much more assertive style."

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