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CRISIS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

U.S. Works to Hold Peace Process Together, Defuse Violence

Diplomacy: Officials try to arrange meeting between Israeli, Palestinian leaders. Stakes high for administration.

September 27, 1996|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — For the Clinton administration--which had brokered the negotiations and invested money, diplomatic prestige and political capital in them--Thursday was a day of struggle to rescue the tattered Israeli-Palestinian peace process. One U.S. diplomat set up shop in Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Gaza office. Another shadowed top Israeli policymakers around Jerusalem. Secretary of State Warren Christopher worked the telephones from here.

The initial objective of the U.S. diplomacy was to try to set up a face-to-face meeting between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to search for ways to defuse the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence since the ancient enemies signed their peace accord in 1993.

U.S. officials said Netanyahu and Arafat both have indicated that they are ready to talk. But they warned that it may not be easy to arrange a meeting as long as Israeli troops and Palestinian police are exchanging gunfire across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There were reports that Arafat was demanding that Israel close a new entrance to an archeological tunnel near Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem before any meeting could take place.

For President Clinton, the outbreak of violence raises serious questions about what had been the proudest accomplishment of the administration's foreign policy--the Israeli-Palestinian peace. And, coming less than six weeks before the November election, the timing could hardly have been worse.

"The events of the past two days stand out precisely because we have made so much progress toward peace in these past few years," Clinton told reporters at the White House. "Violence was becoming the exception, not the rule."

The president said he and his foreign policy strategists "are prepared to do anything we can that will be of assistance" in ending the fighting.

The United States would seem to have plenty of leverage. Washington is Israel's closest ally, most frequent political advocate and the source of $3 billion a year in aid. The United States also is the largest aid donor to the Palestinian Authority, and Washington has become the most important diplomatic supporter of Arafat's fledgling government.

But U.S. officials acknowledge that they cannot compel the parties to make peace. And there is growing evidence that Arafat and Netanyahu may have lost control of a situation in which violence seems to be feeding on itself.

"A lot of the action on the street is not being determined by the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said. "It is spontaneous. Obviously, what leaders say and do can affect the situation, and we hope they can be effective in the next days."

Still, about all the United States or any outside power can do is try to assist the parties in finding ways to dampen the flaring passions.

Christopher spoke to Netanyahu twice by phone Thursday; Dennis Ross, the top U.S. peace envoy in the region, talked repeatedly to ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials, Burns said.

Christopher tried to call Arafat but did not reach him because the Palestinian leader was visiting the wounded in a hospital. Burns said Christopher planned to talk to Arafat today.

Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, spent Thursday shuttling between offices of top Israeli officials; Edward G. Abington, U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, spent the day in Arafat's Gaza office.

Beyond the immediate objective of stopping the bloodshed, administration mediators are pressuring Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks on the next phase of the complex peace process. And though officials are scrupulously evenhanded in public, there is little doubt it will take concessions by Netanyahu's hard-line government to restart the talks.

Christopher, talking to reporters before a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, said the United States has been calling for months for the parties to make progress in the peace talks. "The best thing that could come out of this tragic incident is that it might serve as a warning to the parties" that the peace is fragile and must be protected, he said.

But for reasons that combine diplomacy and domestic politics, administration officials have carefully avoided harsh criticism of the Netanyahu government for opening an ancient archeological tunnel along Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims. That action touched off the current crisis.

In diplomatic terms, the administration wants to avoid anything that might inflame the crisis. Clinton is reluctant to criticize the Israeli government because that might alienate Jewish voters, who have given him solid support this election year.

"The United States is not going to point the finger of blame at either side," Burns said. "We're going to avoid getting involved publicly in the game of finding fault."

But many other governments, including some of Washington's closest allies in the region, took a different tack. At the United Nations, Saudi Arabia and Egypt called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss the situation, probably to call on Israel to close the tunnel.

U.S. officials, though, saw little role for the council. "We ought to find a way to be practical in our discussions and not stand on soapboxes," Burns said.

Times staff writer Craig Turner at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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