Players in Mideast talks jockey with eye on incoming Clinton administration Israel, Lebanon clash in meeting

November 10, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Middle East peace negotiations returned to a dramatically altered host country here yesterday amid aggressive positioning by all sides -- including the United States -- with their eyes on the incoming Clinton administration.

Responding to the president-elect's stated determination to maintain the peace process, but unsure of his policies, the players are trying to remind him from a distance that they shouldn't and can't be overlooked.

These include Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, whose renewed rocket attacks into northern Israel -- and Israeli counterattacks -- produced a sharp clash during yesterday's Israeli-Lebanese negotiations.

The heightened violence serves as an added reminder, a senior U.S. official said, "that if the process is put on hold, it's inevitable that events will put it at some risk."

Laying the groundwork for the first series of talks following the election of Bill Clinton, Jordan's King Hussein has signaled a break with his neighbor, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He has also virtually agreed to an agenda with Israel that sets the course for future peacemaking.

Martin Indyk, executive director of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the king, perhaps fearful that his cancer is terminal, is "coming home" to a pro-Western posture and what the king hopes will be an improved relationship with Saudi Arabia in preparation for the possible ascension of Crown Prince Hassan.

Syria's President Hafez el Assad, without yet offering concessions, is reasserting its commitment to the process in an effort, as Mr. Indyk put it, to "force Clinton to deal with him as a peacemaker and not as a dictator."

Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, with whom the United States has no official ties, relayed congratulations to Governor Clinton and spoke yesterday about the "necessity to continue the president's [Bush's] initiative." But the Palestinian camp remained under strong pressure from elements within the PLO and in the occupied territories demanding major self-government concessions from Israel.

Israeli spokesman Yossi Gal stressed that "the key to progress is continuity" but said Israel's war on Lebanese-based guerrillas would continue unabated.

"Israel will continue to pursue peace with those committed to it as if there were no terrorism and will continue to pursue terrorists as if there were no peace talks," he said.

As the Arabs and the Israelis emphasize their positions, Bush administration officials are jockeying over who among them will serve as the key intermediaries prior to Mr. Clinton's inauguration, or perhaps even afterward.

The president-elect's wish not to see the process interrupted encourages some officials to hope that he will put the hostile election campaign behind him and give White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III his blessing to continue as a broker in the process that he designed.

In any event, a top Baker adviser, Dennis Ross, a key architect of last year's Madrid peace conference and subsequent U.S. moves to advance the talks, will immediately resume an important role as intermediary.

This prospect of Mr. Baker's re-entry into the negotiating process doesn't sit particularly well with veteran diplomats in the State Department, who have taken charge of the U.S. role since Mr. Ross went with Mr. Baker to the White House to run the Bush campaign.

From the sidelines, but perhaps from a stronger political position, former President Jimmy Carter has been offering his services as a special peace envoy, saying that he would be willing to undertake projects where his ability to bring parties together could be useful.

Mr. Clinton spoke by phone yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as part of a series of contacts with world leaders during the start of his transition. He plans to speak this week with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, whose country is both a powerful regional ally and crucial behind-the-scenes force in the peace talks.

Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos said in Little Rock, Ark., that Mr. Clinton stressed his support for "no delay, no slowing down of the peace process in the Middle East" during the shift of power from President Bush.

His statement reinforced the arms-length stance Mr. Clinton adopted the day after his election, when he expressed hope for continuity "in global affairs of interest to all Americans" and insisted that the United States still had one president for the time being, George Bush.

But far from diverting attention, this stance has only heightened uncertainty about his future policies. Among the questions, besides who his top foreign-policy advisers will be, are whether he will assert the pro-Israel tilt he assumed early in the campaign or maintain the Bush administration's even-handed course.

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