Clinton's gambit as peacebroker

As Syrian-Israeli talks proceed, the Mideast offers this US president

Nixon opened China. Carter forged the historic Israel-Egypt peace deal. Reagan drove the Communist Soviet Union toward dtente with the US.

So far, these former presidents have upstaged Bill Clinton, who has yet to make such a permanent contribution to defusing world tensions. But as Mr. Clinton enters his last year in office, analysts see the greatest prospect for a Clinton-brokered peace in the current Arab-Israeli peace talks.

For all the criticisms of the administration's scattershot approach to international affairs, the Mideast is one area where attention has been relatively focused - and the president personally engaged, analysts say.

Indeed, Clinton cleared his calendar yesterday to preside over the second round of Israeli-Syrian talks in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Official Syrian media are calling the discussions "decisive," as both sides seek a land-for-security deal after fighting three full-fledged wars since Israel's founding in 1948.

"I have actually very high expectations for what might come out of the Israel-Syria talks simply because it plays to where the president is strongest, and that is personal intervention, hand-holding, being the go-between, and having the staying power to hang with it," says Tara Sonenshine, a former senior aide to national security adviser Samuel Berger.

There is, of course, no shortage of hot spots that could use the hand of a skillful negotiator. Besides the Mideast, there's the Balkans quagmire, the India-Pakistan tinderbox, the Korean Peninsula - all representing opportunities for a president who is now a senior statesman.

Unlike President Richard Nixon, who preferred paper diplomacy to face-to-face talks, or Ronald Reagan, who relied heavily on Secretary of State George Shultz, Clinton runs intense, almost therapy-like sessions with world leaders when he senses a peace deal.

Witness 1998's marathon Wye River talks in Maryland, involving Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, or the numerous phone calls Clinton placed to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak before talks opened here last month.

"It's a style unlike the style of any other president in modern times," says Philip Zelikow, a foreign-policy expert at the University of Virginia and a career diplomat in the Bush administration.

Looking good

Several factors bode well for an Israel-Syria peace deal this year and for a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement in September - though the outcomes are by no means sealed. First, Israel's Mr. Barak appears ready to end 50 years of conflict with Syria and sees a deal as leading to withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, for which Syria is a power broker. Withdrawal would fulfill a Barak campaign promise.

Syria's President Assad, meanwhile, sees in Barak his only opportunity to regain the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. He also wants to secure a legacy and to smooth his son's transition to leadership.

On the Palestinian front, both Barak and Mr. Arafat want closure on the grinding issues of security for Israel and Palestinian autonomy. In the background are also concerns about Arafat's health - as well as the uncertainties of a future US administration should a deal fail under Clinton.

To Clinton, facilitating a Mideast deal that has such wide-ranging implications would no doubt cement his place in history books. If this year's agreements are in fact signed, they could open the way to peace between Israel and most of the Arab world.

But a number of things could derail the Mideast peace process, including domestic politics in any of the countries involved, and a US Congress that may not approve the security and economic guarantees that America would likely be called upon to provide.

Jon Alterman, a Mideast analyst at the US Institute of Peace here, says the problem with peace agreements in the region is always implementation. If any deals are made, he sees them as broad ones, as foundations for additional agreements in the future.

This makes Clinton's job particularly tough. Unlike President Jimmy Carter, who Mr. Alterman credits for starting the region down the long road to peace, "Clinton doesn't have the luxury of merely trying to be an ice breaker. He has a harder job. He has to build a framework for the future that depends on implementation that he can't control."

Around the world

While the administration is throwing its energy into a legacy-enhancing Mideast peace deal, that is not the only trouble spot it is watching. Clinton this year is expected to visit India and Pakistan, two new nuclear powers at loggerheads. And the administration is inching toward more normal relations with some other countries where strains with the US have been evident, such as North Korea and Iran.

One conflict the US is trying to influence is between Turkey and Greece, over the status of Cyprus. The two sides recently finished 12 days UN-moderated negotiations. "Clinton feels the Irish conflict heading toward settlement, the Middle East is heading toward a settlement, and now he wants to add Cyprus to the list," says an administration official.

But these other areas are not ripe for resolution in the short time remaining to Clinton, says Thomas Henriksen of the Hoover Institution in California. In most of these cases, the president has come too late to the issue, has not focused on it consistently, or the countries themselves are not ready to deal, he says.

*Staff writer Justin Brown contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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