PARIS -- The Middle East policy of the United States has changed, but not that much, and the change may have come too late.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently emphasized the primacy of security in the Middle East, but also said that "unilateral acts which pre-judge or pre-determine issues reserved for permanent status negotiations" are unacceptable.
This implicit criticism of Israel's current policy on expanding Jewish settlements and preempting Arab-owned land in Jerusalem was a significant departure from past Clinton Administration policy. Mrs. Albright also proposed folding the so-called interim discussions, now suspended, into a speeded-up final negotiation on a permanent settlement between Palestinians and Israel.
A editorial in the New York Times the next day approved her comment on Israel's policies.
As the Times is a newspaper close to the American Jewish community, its endorsement of what it specifically interpreted as Mrs. Albright's support for a future Palestinian state was significant in itself and will have caused dismay in Jerusalem. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.
Mr. Netanyahu told the international press in February that the Palestinians must content themselves with a form of local autonomy in the territories given up to them by Israel. These territories would be self-governing entities within a larger West Bank area under continuing Israeli security control.
Jewish colonies would be free to expand, and would be linked together by a network of secure highways. The Palestinian authority would be held responsible for preventing terrorist attacks on Israel, but would not have the attributes of a state, and would not possess sovereignty as internationally defined.
South African model
The Palestinians naturally regard this as a plan to confine them in a form of Bantustan, on the South African model. They have believed, however, that the United States would eventually force Mr. Netanyahu to yield, so as to give them a sovereign state.
Before the July 30 suicide bombings in Jerusalem, President Clinton privately told some of his liberal Jewish contacts that administration policy was about to change. These friends, in turn, told him that the unconditional backing given Mr. Netanyahu by the American Jewish community is breaking up, a fact of considerable electoral significance to Mr. Clinton and to his chosen successor, Vice President Gore.
American Jewish opinion is reacting to the blocked peace process and to recent attacks made by Orthodox rabbis in Israel on the Conservative and Reform Jewish communities -- to which most American Jews belong. There has been a dramatic fall-off in contributions to the major Jewish federations in the U.S., connected to this shift in opinion.
However Dennis Ross, the president's emissary, arrived in Israel last weekend with a mandate to deal only with the security question. This meant U.S. endorsement of Mr. Netanyahu's argument that Yasser Arafat had to take the first step to restore the negotiations broken off earlier this year, after Israel launched new housing construction for Jews in largely Arab East Jerusalem.
An American who saw the Palestinians after their meeting with Mr. Ross reports that they were furious. They considered the American position an echo of Israel's demands and an abdication of the role of honest broker.
Mr. Arafat nonetheless agreed Monday to re-establish security cooperation -- broken off since the Jerusalem bombings. He did so because he is pinned between the extremists in his own camp and the demands of Mr. Netanyahu. His only hope is to get to Mrs. Albright and convince her to force Mr. Netanyahu to give the Palestinians the political concessions he has adamantly refused.
Mr. Arafat, himself, possesses no bargaining power. Without the United States, he is at the mercy of Mr. Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister demands that Mr. Arafat crush the extremists and deliver their leaders to Israel. The Palestinian leader is incapable of doing that, and would be destroyed if he tried, since Mr. Netanyahu insists that whatever Mr. Arafat does, Israel will make no substantive political concessions and will permit no Palestinian state to exist.
If we are to believe what President Clinton and Mrs. Albright have most recently said about the American role, Mr. Arafat's hopes are illusions. They still insist that the Israelis and Palestinians must settle all this between them. The United States "will work with them to facilitate" their dealings, but "cannot choose" for them.
In that case there probably will be no settlement. Mr. Arafat cannot agree to what Mr. Netanyahu wants. The extremists will therefore take over from him. The Israelis will reimpose military control over the West Bank, and possibly re-intervene in Gaza.
There will be an explosion in the region. All the Palestinians, and all the Israelis, will find themselves much worse off than they ever were before.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/15/97