BILL CLINTON has made clear his support for prompt forward movement in the Middle East peace talks, which resumed in Washington last week. He has also made clear his unqualified support for Israel and his opposition to Palestinian statehood.
These positions are hardly unusual for an American politician. Strong backing for Israel, as an ally and a democratic outpost in a turbulent region, is engrained in Washington. And that backing often includes agreement with policies long held by Israeli governments, such as opposition to an independent Palestine.
The question, particularly in the minds of Arab negotiators, will be whether the incoming US president can maintain Washington's activist role as mediator in the talks - pushing, as needed, for concessions from both sides. The answer won't be clear until the Clinton administration takes charge, though the odds are that the new president, with his pragmatism and grasp of dealmaking, will follow the Middle East diplomatic path ably laid out by President Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker III.
Some supporters of Israel in this country think the Bush administration went too far last year in tying loan guarantees for immigrant housing in Israel to a halt in settlement-building in the West Bank. Yet that tough stand was critical in establishing Washington's credibility as a peace broker. Israel's current government, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has willingly responded to the US demands.
The US has to be ready to ask both Israel and its Arab interlocutors to take stands that cause a political outcry back home in the Middle East. Both sides need the political buffer of being able to say, "The US made us do it."
The difficulties of Middle Eastern peacemaking are all too obvious as the parties resume their discussions. Tension in southern Lebanon has broken into open fighting between Israeli forces and Hizbullah militiamen - fighting that implicated Syria as well. On the other hand, Israel and Jordan appear nearer an accord.
Talks between the Palestinians and Israel have yet to plow beyond the initial tangles between short-term compromises and long-term goals.
The Bush administration may be able to forge some progress in the next two months, but the major work will undoubtedly be left to the Clinton team. That team should keep two points foremost: (1) Middle East peace is of tremendous importance to the US, with its many political, cultural, and economic ties to the region. (2) The biggest favor Washington can do Israel, or any other party to the talks, is to diligently push for peace, regardless of protests.