Christopher seeks to gain trust on trip, get Middle East talks moving again Primary aim is to set date for negotiations

February 14, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's first foreign trip is shaping up as a race to restore the Middle East peace process to a snail's pace.

And he may be lucky to get that much.

With feverish effort behind the scenes, the United States, Israel and America's Arab allies succeeded Friday in preventing the mission from being overwhelmed by the fate of the nearly 400 remaining Palestinians expelled to a frigid hilltop in southern Lebanon.

The United Nations Security Council gave a qualified endorsement to a U.S.-Israeli deal for the return of the deportees, shifting the problem to the sidelines.

But the Clinton administration still faces a huge challenge in a tinderbox region that in the best of times requires a disproportionate amount of U.S. officials' time and effort.

Analysts and diplomats say Mr. Christopher needs to establish the new administration's credibility and commitment with the region's shrewd and cautious leaders.

Beyond that, he must find ways of advancing the talks from the near-deadlock that set in last year once they moved beyond procedure and approached the core issues of territory, security and peace.

"Christopher inherits a process. Now he will need to energize it," said Richard Haass, a Middle East adviser to former President George Bush.

Attempting to fulfill a Clinton campaign commitment to the peace process, Mr. Christopher leaves Wednesday for a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe that includes stops in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Geneva, Switzerland, and Brussels, Belgium.

His primary aim is to get Israelis and Arabs to commit to an early resumption of direct negotiations and to a separate series of broader talks on regional issues.

The talks, all but stalled after former Secretary of State James A. Baker III went to the White House in August, went into what a senior U.S. official called a "deep freeze" two months ago when Israel deported hundreds of Palestinians it labeled as radical Islamic fundamentalists intent on destroying the Jewish state.

But the deportees have become a much-publicized symbol of what Arabs generally see as unpunished Israeli defiance of international law.

A U.S.-Israeli deal under which a fourth of the deportees could return immediately and the rest within a year succeeded in blocking a move toward U.N. Security Council sanctions against Israel, but it was quickly rejected by the deportees themselves.

Late Friday, however, the Security Council agreed that steps taken by Israel so far represent a step in the right direction.

It also voiced the hope that remaining deportees will be allowed to return expeditiously and that the peace process will reconvene.

This move was important to Palestinian negotiators for two reasons: It put a U.N. imprimatur on the U.S.-Israeli deal, diluting the widespread Arab perception that it was undertaken behind Palestinians' backs solely to protect Israel from U.N. sanctions.

It also signaled an implicit Israeli recognition of the Security Council's authority.

Earlier Friday, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi praised what she called "an indication that Israel is working more constructively with the Security Council."

Arabs had voiced fears that if Israel blithely defied U.N. warnings about the deportees, it could never be pressured into implementing U.N. land-for-peace resolutions 242 and 338, the cornerstones of the Middle East peace process for the last 20 years.

"This step allows the discussions next week on the trip to really focus on the peace process," a senior U.S. official said.

In its most positive light, these two weeks of pre-trip diplomacy show what Robert Satloff, acting director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls a new U.S.-Israeli political partnership aimed at advancing the peace process. The experience forged solid, early ties between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Clinton administration.

The Arabs, Mr. Satloff said, have demanded that the United States be the "driving force."

"They now have that. It can be used to great advantage by all sides in the process."

While all the parties want the talks to resume, however, they have yet to commit themselves even to a date, let alone changes in their negotiation posture that would make genuine progress likely.

While Mr. Christopher comes with a record of his dogged negotiations during the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis, Arab leaders remain suspicious about President Clinton, says Mohammed Wahby, an Egyptian journalist and former diplomat.

In addition, the president is woefully inexperienced in contrast with the decades in high office shared by almost all the leaders Mr. Christopher will meet.

An Arab diplomat sees signs of ineptness and wishy-washiness in the way the administration has handled both foreign and domestic issues so far.

In the campaign, Mr. Clinton showed a more pro-Israel tilt than Mr. Bush.

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