Stronger U.S. role in Middle East Clinton muscle: Telling Netanyahu to meet Arafat, keep to Oslo accord.

January 23, 1998

A COMPARISON between the Middle East negotiations taking place in Washington and the Northern Ireland peace talks is instructive. The British and Irish governments, jointly playing the role that Washington does for the Middle East, are pushing joint proposals on local parties that are not coming up with their own. This is what the Clinton administration avoided as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, but now finds itself doing.

President Clinton is demanding that Israel vacate more of the West Bank, and suspend settlement-building there, to preserve agreements it made when Benjamin Netanyahu was in opposition. Mr. Clinton is pushing for meetings between Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. This implies an even bigger personal role, if not for himself, then for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Honest brokering has not been her forte. She is better at going before cameras and selling a policy to the American people.

Mr. Netanyahu, in stonewalling, holds fast to his principles as an Israeli intransigent. But he does nothing to help himself with the U.S. president by playing pals with Clinton-bashers of the Christian right, even if their literal interpretations of Scripture lead to useful pro-Israel positions. It took Mr. Netanyahu's recalcitrance to make Mr. Arafat appear the more sympathetic of the two in the way the White House receives them. This is not what Mr. Clinton would have wanted.

Mr. Netanyahu went off to see the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, a counterproductive attempt to go over the heads of Mr. Clinton and dovish U.S. Jewish leaders to a segment of the American public. By contrast, Mr. Arafat, the longtime terrorist, scheduled a respectful visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He also contrived for raids on Hamas terrorists to take place while the Israelis and Americans would be putting pressure on him.

Mr. Clinton should continue to lean on Israel to withdraw from more of the West Bank and suspend the enlargement of settlements there. At the same time, he must press Mr. Arafat to rid the Palestine Liberation Organization charter of calls for Israel's destruction, rid Palestinian education of anti-Jewish teaching and maintain the crackdown on terrorism. It's not just the United States that needs a strong and focused American president. The peoples of the Middle East do, too.

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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