U.S. pressures Israel to salvage peace effort

March 05, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After a week of failed efforts to rescue the Middle East peace process, the Clinton administration began yesterday to take the politically painful step of leaning hard on Israel to make it happen.

A reluctance to pressure its ally has been at the heart of America's low profile since a Jewish extremist gunned down 39 Palestinians in a mosque near Hebron Feb. 25.

But mounting Palestinian demands for international protection, together with the political weakness of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, have cracked that posture.

The administration moved yesterday toward endorsing some form of "security-oriented" international presence in the occupied territory that the PLO is demanding as a condition for returning to the peace table.

While publicly insisting this was up to the PLO and Israel to work out, the State Department did not contradict Arafat aide Nabil Shaath's claim that he had held a "positive discussion" with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and others about the plan, which would be broached in a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Mr. Shaath, speaking to reporters between his meetings with U.S. officials in Washington yesterday, was vague on how muscular the force would be. But he said, "We're not talking about historians and psychoanalysts; we're talking about security-oriented people."

The "nature of the armament" had to be negotiated, he said.

While not rejecting an international presence, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin insists that it be composed of unarmed civilians, as with Red Cross observer missions.

Israel also doesn't want to discuss this until peace talks resume. But Mr. Shaath warned, "We want to resume the peace process as soon as possible, and to do that we need security enhancement."

In 1991, President George Bush put fierce pressure on then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to keep the peace process from unraveling, demanding a settlements freeze as a condition for $10 billion in loan guarantees.

With the election of Labor's Mr. Rabin, who is committed to a rapid peace process, the relationship changed to one of quiet cooperation and the United States drew back from a strong mediating role.

This stance continued after President Clinton's election. In previous setbacks to the peace process, Mr. Christopher has relied on strenuous behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get talks restarted.

Americans remained on the sidelines as Israelis and Palestinians negotiated the outlines of their agreement last year in Norway. Mr. Clinton has seldom been directly involved, except in occasional contacts and visits with heads of government.

As Israeli-Palestinian talks dragged on over implementing September's landmark declaration of principles for self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, the administration resisted Mr. Arafat's demand for closer U.S. involvement.

Even after the massacre, the administration kept some distance. Mr. Clinton announced that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to send negotiators to Washington and stay until they wrapped up an agreement. But senior U.S. officials said the United States planned only a helpful facilitator role.

By early this week, however, it was clear that this stance wasn't working.

Not only was Mr. Arafat, on whom U.S. peace hopes rest, politically unable to resume talks, but Syria, Lebanon and Jordan cut short their own negotiations with Israel.

By Thursday, the administration was showing frustration with Israel's slowness in carrying out pledges to disarm some settlers and take other steps to protect Palestinians.

Administration officials consider some international presence a necessary expedient to resuming the peace process.

But they stress that the faster the September PLO-Israeli deal is implemented, the sooner Palestinians will have their own police force to protect them.

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