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NEWS ANALYSIS

U.S. Bid to Revive Mideast Talks Reaches an Impasse

May 31, 1997|NORMAN KEMPSTER and MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Faced with a steady loss of influence in the region, the Clinton administration realizes that it must make some changes in its Middle East policy, officials say, though it has not settled on specific steps to revitalize the stalled peace process.

"We're going to keep plugging," one senior official said recently. "Obviously, we have to think about our tactics. In the next few weeks, we may have something else to do, but right now we haven't decided."

Policymakers in Washington, Jerusalem and Gaza City agree on very little these days, but on one thing they are in full accord: The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in deep crisis and in danger of falling apart completely.

Israelis and Palestinians fault each other first for the breakdown, but both sides say the United States deserves a share of the blame.

In the past, U.S. administrations have sometimes pressured reluctant Israelis and Arabs to put aside their historical animosity and go to the negotiating table.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III used that technique to cobble together the Madrid peace conference in 1991.

But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has adopted a more passive posture.

"We can't want peace more than the parties do," she has said repeatedly. That mantra also was recited by previous secretaries of State--including Baker and Warren Christopher--but they occasionally acted as if they could make the Israelis and the Arabs want peace by sheer force of will.

Sometimes it worked.

Albright may yet adopt the same technique. Last week, she described the "lack of progress in the Middle East" as the biggest disappointment of her first four months in office.

Officials say that she is considering her first official trip to the region but that no date has been set.

Christopher made 27 visits--a pace of more than one every two months--in an effort to bridge the gap between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

In Israel, the betting is that the United States will cool it for a while, letting Israelis and Palestinians stew in their own juices.

"The Americans feel they have lost their grip and their control over the process," Israel's former ambassador to Washington, Itamar Rabinovich, told Israel Radio.

"The Americans didn't want to be so involved in the process to begin with," he added. "They were perfectly happy being sponsors, patrons, and didn't seek the rather unrewarding job of mediators to ungrateful sides."

But Washington may not have the option of backing off.

For one thing, the European Union has assigned its own mediator to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, setting the stage for a more active European role that could undercut Washington's preeminent position as Middle East peace broker. France has taken the lead in pushing for European action.

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Administration officials and non-government experts agree that the United States has vital interests to protect in the Middle East that go far beyond the altruistic desire to stop antagonists from killing one another.

"If this was just a humanitarian effort, then this stance of saying they have to be worthy of our attention might have some merit," said William B. Quandt, the National Security Council's expert on the Middle East during the Jimmy Carter administration. "But we have a series of national interests that have drawn us into the region, and those continue to apply even when the parties get stubborn."

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns made a similar point recently: "The fact is that the United States has vital national interests in the Middle East, and those interests speak to our economic interests, our strategic interests and also to our political and humanitarian interests. We have a relationship with the state of Israel which is fundamentally important to the American people. None of that has gone away."

Nevertheless, Washington's options are limited. Officials say the United States could increase the pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to resume peace talks with the Israelis. But they say it will do little good to force Arafat back to the table unless Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ready to move, something that appears doubtful. And pressuring Netanyahu would require the administration to assume domestic political risks--which it has been reluctant to do.

The most obvious obstacle right now is Israel's decision to build new Jewish housing on an East Jerusalem hillside.

Still, it seems clear that the U.S. will soon have to do something to get the peace process moving again.

One step might be to replace Dennis B. Ross as Middle East negotiator. But administration officials rule out that step.

A trip to the region by Albright might help, but she seems reluctant to go until she is assured of positive results. Yet some non-government Middle East experts say that it may not be possible to sit back and wait for the right time.

Kempster reported from Washington and Miller from Jerusalem.

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