What role can US play in Mideast peace?

Critics of American policy rise up at home and abroad as Clinton's time runs short.

Even as President Clinton rushes to the Middle East for emergency peace talks today, the US role in the region is becoming weighed down by past diplomatic failures and growing anti-American sentiment.

Above all else, Mr. Clinton will want the scheduled summit in Egypt between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to yield a cease-fire, stopping two weeks of violence.

But longer-term expectations are low. Not only have the emotional confrontations of recent days eroded past peace accords, but they have also cast doubt on America's ability to broker any longer-term agreement - either this week or in the immediate future.

In fact, here in the States, critics have said this summer's failed Camp David talks unnecessarily created a make-or-break atmosphere that may, in part, have catalyzed the current lawlessness.

For an administration that sees Mideast peace as a crucial part of its foreign-policy legacy, the outbreaks of violence are the latest - and perhaps most significant - threat to years of painstaking negotiation.

Time was always going to be a factor, with Clinton nearing the end of his term in January. But any peace effort with the Israelis and Palestinians is likely to be even more elusive following the apparent terrorist attack Thursday on the USS Cole as it was refueling in Aden, Yemen. At least 17 US sailors were dead and 33 wounded.

A team of about 160 US investigators began probing the destroyer over the weekend but no leads were announced.

Yemen, however, is known to host several terrorist groups, according to the State Department. And should the US find a culprit, retaliation could be a dicey business - especially if the alleged terrorists have ties to the Arab world.

"If our response to terrorism is aimed at the Arab world, nobody will believe us," says Bernard Reich, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, who specializes in Middle East issues. "We are no longer seen with the great credibility that we once had."

Mr. Reich explains that a retaliatory strike by the US, even if justified, could be vulnerable to questioning and could contribute to already strong anti-American feelings in the region.

Terrorism is difficult to prove, especially in the case of a suicide bombing, which appears to be the case with the Cole.

Already, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih described the massive explosion as an accident and said there were no terrorist groups within Yemen's borders.

The US is unpopular in Yemen, as it is in much of the Middle East. For instance, during violence in Gaza and the West Bank over the past two weeks, Palestinian rioters burned American flags and said they held the US responsible for the Israeli crackdowns, which killed nearly 100 Palestinians.

What's the US role?

With such emotions dominating the region, it becomes nearly impossible for Clinton to be an "honest broker" while negotiating with Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat.

After Camp David peace talks broke down this summer, Washington piled most of the blame on Arafat and the Palestinians, who responded by saying that they had not been prepared to go the negotiating table in the first place.

"We feel that we have been unfairly treated in the aftermath of Camp David and now," says Hassan Abdel Rahman, a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization here. "Clinton did not condemn Israel for killing 100 Palestinians - and we need to hear that from the US."

Clinton, with his presidential term running out Jan. 20, is also being second-guessed by political opponents in the US, who think he pressed too hard for the Camp David talks.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina recently said the violence was predictable after the "heavy pressures" put on each side to reach an agreement.

There are also some in Washington who argue that the US needs to shed its role as peacemaker and take a greater role in protecting Israel, a longtime ally.

Partner pulled two ways

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has worked closely with Clinton on the Middle East, has also shown signs of frustration with the US. He is in the difficult position of trying to be the leader of an Arab world that is divided between those who want better relations with Washington and those who hate Washington.

Last week, as anti-Israel sentiment reached an apex, Mr. Mubarak denied Washington's initial attempts to set up an emergency peace summit. Only when emotions calmed Friday and Saturday could he agree to hold today's meeting.

Yet the summit is almost sure to focus on a short-term fix - not the comprehensive peace deal that Clinton had made a top priority of his administration.

In this summer's Camp David talks, Barak and Arafat had apparently come to terms on some key issues, including the use of more than 90 percent of the West Bank for a Palestinian state and Palestinian sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem.

But those successes now appear irrelevant, as both sides exchange accusations, and the trust that is needed for compromise has clearly been broken.

"Clinton wanted it too bad," says Reich, the professor. "He thought that if he could get Arafat and Barak in a room together he could get them to make concessions. He was wrong."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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