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Outlook Dim but Stakes Are High at Egypt Summit

Diplomacy: Clinton is hoping to give Barak and Arafat the vital political cover they need to end the violence.


WASHINGTON — For President Clinton and U.S. diplomacy, Monday's summit in Egypt is a meeting of low expectations but enormous stakes, possibly the last clear chance to stop a spiral that could destroy a Middle East consensus that has taken a quarter of a century to build.

In the short run, Clinton's objective is to give Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat the political cover to end the worst spasm of Arab-Israeli violence in a decade.

Barak and Arafat are reluctant to appear to retreat without a guarantee that the other side will also pull back. Although Clinton can't provide that guarantee, he can give the Israeli and Palestinian leaders a reason to call for restraint without seeming to give in to the other.

"What we envision . . . is to give everybody a reason to take a step back, to pause, to turn away and look again at the consequences of what's going on now," a senior Clinton administration official said Saturday. "How do you create a stronger basis on which to stop the violence, have measures that will ensure that it will not be repeated, and lay a basis to begin to restore some level of confidence between the two sides?"

It won't be easy. In announcing his plans to attend the summit, Clinton said Saturday: "The path ahead is difficult. After the terrible events of the past few days, the situation is still quite tense."

Whether or not the meeting at the seaside resort of Sharm el Sheik restores the tense but mostly nonviolent conditions that preceded the recent bloodshed, the summit underlines a larger crisis in U.S. relations with the Arab world.

Although Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's agreement to host the summit shows that Washington and its Arab allies can still work together when the interests of both appear to be at stake, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Washington to enlist the help of moderate Arab states in behalf of a U.S. policy that the Arabs believe tilts unfairly toward Israel.

Mubarak, perhaps Washington's closest Arab ally, dragged his feet for more than a week, insisting that the Barak-Arafat meeting be delayed until after an Arab League summit to be held next Saturday in Cairo. The Arab gathering, which Iraqi President Saddam Hussein plans to attend, is expected to adopt a strong declaration supporting Palestinian demands for an independent state and sovereignty over Jerusalem.

"The U.S. today faces a major national security crisis," said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland expert on the Arab-Israeli peace process. "If there is a full explosion . . . , what is going to be at stake is no longer just violence among Israelis and Palestinians . . . but very serious threats to American interests" throughout the region.

"It's the economy," Telhami added. "It's oil, stupid."

For many years, the U.S. government and moderate Arab regimes have relied on each other for diplomatic support. The relationship was never smooth, but friction has been building since the breakdown of the Camp David peace talks in July. At the time, Clinton said Barak "showed particular courage, vision and an understanding of the historical importance of the moment" at the negotiating table. Arafat, he said, was unwilling to make the compromises necessary to reach agreement.

Washington's Arab allies clearly didn't share Clinton's assessment. They rebuffed the administration's appeal to endorse Barak's offer, especially its provisions concerning the disputed holy city of Jerusalem. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states said Israel's proposed deal wasn't nearly good enough.

Since Clinton's public endorsement of Barak's role in the failed talks, relations between the president and Arafat have been extremely chilly. Middle East experts describe a mutual distrust that has made it difficult for Clinton to get his points across to the Palestinian leader.

During the three months since Camp David, Mubarak has become Washington's primary line of communication to Arafat. Some U.S. officials grumble that Mubarak sometimes modifies the message that Washington wants Arafat to hear. But without the Egyptian president, there might be no message at all.

James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, said most of America's traditional Arab allies would like to maintain good relations with the U.S. but are dismayed at what they consider its bias.

"If our message to the Egyptians and the Jordanians is to pressure Arafat to accept what is offered [by the Israelis], they can't do that because they can't ingest it either," Zogby said.

Middle East experts say it's unrealistic to expect any ally to support U.S. policy all the time. But administration officials are clearly frustrated by the reluctance of the Arabs to support the recent U.S. initiatives for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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