Required: US Help in Mideast Peace Process

Israel's relationship with its Palestinian neighbors is moving - with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy - toward a crisis.

The US government, as sponsor of the Israeli-Arab peace process, needs to add up the implications of what is at stake in the Holy Land, and start figuring how to reverse the current downward spiral.

This is not something the administration can do alone. All Americans concerned about the quality of peace in the Middle East need to stand up and help the Clintonites articulate the principles of a fair and workable American position.

The crisis might explode any day, in any one of the scores of places where Palestinian families chafe up against Israel's overwhelming power. This might be in Gaza, where a recent confrontation over road usage was only narrowly defused. Or in Hebron, where 400 Israeli settlers, many of them provocative bullies, require many times their own number of soldiers - and the harsh curtailment of the rights of tens of thousands of local Palestinians - in order to prevent a bloodbath.

Or in Jerusalem, whose lot over the past century has too often been that of an intercommunal tinderbox. Jerusalem is considered sacred by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is a potent national symbol for both Palestinians and Israelis. Sixteen months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to build a vast new Jews-only housing project there: That action threw the peace talks into the limbo that they still languish in. His Cabinet's announcement last month of new city boundaries to bring many large West Bank settlements under Jerusalem's umbrella was yet another provocation.

How will Washington respond? If recent events are a guide, the Clinton administration might want to shy away from any confrontation with Netanyahu, and simply "hope for the best." Congress might continue to grandstand on Arab-Israeli issues, playing to a limited gallery of supposed domestic donors with terrible disregard for the well-being of actual Israelis and Palestinians living in the Middle East.

But the peace process is in crisis. This is no time for grandstanding. The administration needs to step in now to announce its strong concern for the process, as well as concrete steps to get it back on track. The president needs to explain to Congress and the public why such action is needed - and there are plenty of signs that all Americans, except for a hard-line fringe, would be ready to give him their backing.

What steps should he take? First, firm US support for the idea that the status of Jerusalem cannot be altered by provocative unilateral actions like Netanyahu's - and a demand, backed up by the threat of consequences, that Israel rescind both the planned construction at Har Homa, and the establishment of the new "broader" municipal authority. The US should allow the Security Council to express its opposition to the enlargement of Jerusalem. There is no reason for a US veto at this time.

Netanyahu's supporters will yell that this is US interference in what he claims is a purely "domestic" Israeli issue. But Jerusalem is not a purely domestic Israeli issue. It is an agreed agenda item in the talks with the Palestinians. And it is a city whose situation - as magnet for national and religious hatreds, or beacon for fruitful coexistence - will largely determine the fate of relations throughout the broader Middle East.

Beyond the crisis over Jerusalem, Washington needs to decide what to do about its own longstanding proposal for a 13 percent Israeli pullback in the present interim stage of the peace process. The Palestinians accepted long ago. Netanyahu balked. He has faced no consequences for his obstinacy yet. Do the Clintonites want to continue flogging that rather dead-looking donkey? Or do they want to start now to brainstorm ideas for the final-status outcome?

TOO often, US government spokespeople repeat the mantra that "The United States cannot want this peace more than the parties themselves." That's nonsense.

The US has its own strong interest in seeing a Middle East at peace, and need not be ashamed to say so. Having our tax dollars continue to prop up Netanyahu's extremism serves no American interest at all.

So let's see Washington start by halting the damage in Jerusalem. And then, a broad discussion among Americans on how to get back to a vision of viable long-term peace in the Holy Land. Failing to act now will bring disaster.

* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

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