Young but experienced 'peace team' shepherds Clinton's Mideast successes

August 14, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Ever since Martin Indyk, on a Florida golf course in the fall of 1992, tempted him with the promise of agreements between Israel and all its close Arab adversaries in a first term, Bill Clinton has kept the Middle East a top priority.

Weighing in personally and sending Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to slog between Damascus and Jerusalem, Mr. Clinton has shown a consistency and determination absent in some other policies.

Behind this drive is a team of mostly Big Chill-generation diplomats who share a career-long passion to break the regional cycles of bloodshed and hatred, and a belief that the time is ripe.

Called the "peace team," "peace processors" or, before a woman joined their ranks, the "peace brothers," they have sparked some of the administration's few foreign affairs highlights by bringing continuity, long practice, and a knowledge of the players and history seldom found in post-Cold War diplomacy.

Daily strategy talks

Their incubator is a free-wheeling 10 a.m. daily meeting on the State Department's seventh floor chaired by Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross, 45. A loose-limbed, casual Californian, he began work on the Middle East while at President Jimmy Carter's Pentagon. In 1991, he shaped then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III's strategy to spur direct Arab-Israeli talks.

Around the table are Mr. Indyk, 43, an Australian-raised presidential assistant, now slated to be ambassador to Israel, who dates his "obsession" with the Middle East to a trip to Israel at age 18; a career envoy to the Arab world, Robert Pelletreau, 59, who opened the first U.S. contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1988; Toni Verstandig, 41, a former aide to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, specializing in the Middle East and terrorism; and the group's core trouble-shooter negotiators, Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron Miller, both 45.

Their cohesion has survived splits over tactics and strategy, Mideast flare-ups, all-night negotiations in hotel rooms, threats to their personal security, criticism from all sides and public scrutiny of their backgrounds for pro-Arab or -Israeli bias.

With two agreements in hand and Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians reconciling at a pace unimaginable a year ago, it's paying off. But the big prize -- an Israeli-Syrian deal -- still eludes them. Israel has yet to satisfy Syrian President Hafez el Assad's demand for all of the Golan Heights. And Mr. Assad is still subjecting peace to cost-benefit analysis.

A vast change rides on the outcome. The remaining rejectionist states would lose the critical mass of force needed to mount an attack, Lebanon's Iran-backed terrorists would be further isolated and the already-eroded Arab economic boycott of Israel would crumble.

More than a test of the team, this goal will demand toughness from their bosses, who face a selling job with Syria, Israel and the United States, where Americans are fearful of a U.S. role in securing the Golan Heights.

So will other challenges that threaten to negate the impact of peace on regional stability: the PLO's resistance to democracy and the threat to Muslim North Africa from Islamic extremists who are pushing Algeria toward chaos.

Building on a legacy from the Bush administration, the team serves as the grease that keeps peace-process machinery from breaking under the strain of disruptions. A plaque on Mr. Ross' desk says, "It can be done."

"Dennis doesn't recognize a brick wall," says an Israeli official. "He finds a way around, under or above it."

The toughest one to scale, Mr. Ross says, was the collapse of talks after the Feb. 25 massacre of Muslim worshipers by a Jewish settler in Hebron on the West Bank. Mr. Ross was on the phone without a break one day from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

A frequent caller then and now is Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, who calls him "Mr. Dennis."

Mr. Ross makes the most of Mr. Christopher's skills as a lawyer and conciliator to bridge negotiating gaps. His partner and longtime friend Mr. Indyk keeps the president in at least monthly contact -- in 45-minute phone calls or by letter -- with Mr. Assad.

Acting on the team's advice to play hardball with King Hussein, ** Mr. Clinton pressed the Jordanian on June 22 to make a leap toward peace with Israel, suggesting a meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House.

Last week, Mr. Clinton urged other nations to ease Jordan's debts.

Mr. Indyk, who has spent his career researching, writing, lecturing and thinking about the Middle East, also is key to what an Israeli official calls "unprecedented intimacy" between the Clinton White House and Mr. Rabin, who also faces a re-election contest by 1996.

These personal ties set a tone. But they obscure the fact that U.S. Middle East policy hasn't changed fundamentally in decades.

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