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Secretary of State Begins a Delicate, Arduous Trip

US officials aim to reassure Europeans and push hard for progress on Mideast peace

IF you think your holiday travel was a nightmare, consider what United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher faces this week - a swing through Europe and the Middle East that promises to be as arduous as any diplomatic shuttle he has yet undertaken.

In European capitals Secretary Christopher will have the delicate task of informing allies that the United States is not in favor of their latest peace plan for besieged Bosnia. At the same time, he will have to explain to old European friends that the Clinton administration's newfound foreign policy emphasis on Asia won't leave them out in the cold.

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State Department spokesman Mike McCurry says the latter task reminds him of the old ditty his wife sings to his baby girl, which begins: ``Make new friends and keep the old; one is silver, the other is gold.''

In the Middle East, Christopher will try to keep the Israeli-Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) peace agreement from slogging to a stop in a mire of implementing details. And he is also expected to shuttle between Damascus and Jerusalem to promote a settlement between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights.

Diplomacy in the Middle East region has now reached the point ``where we have a responsibility to push as hard as we can,'' Mr. McCurry says.

The first stop on Secretary Christopher's after-Thanksgiving world tour is Rome, today, for a meeting of the 52-member Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Then he travels to Brussels for meetings with the smaller circle of NATO allies, ostensibly to plan a NATO summit that President Clinton will attend in early January.

Administration officials say that in both places they would like to promote the linkage between national security and economic cooperation - one of their favorite broad foreign policy messages. They say this message is particularly timely now, as a Dec. 15 deadline for successful conclusion of a round of world-trade talks is fast approaching. These talks, held under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) have been stymied largely by US-European disagreements over subsidies to farmers.

But in both Rome and Brussels the acute problem of Bosnia is likely to intrude. (Milosevic makes new demands, Page 2.) Europeans are now pushing a plan that would progressively ease sanctions against Serbia if Bosnian Serbs agree to hand back territory wrested from Muslims. US officials have given no formal response to this plan but have hinted they oppose it as giving aggressor Serbia too much upon promise of too little.

And in any case, Secretary Christopher has a little explaining to do vis-a-vis US European allies. At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Seattle in mid-November, both Christopher and Mr. Clinton repeatedly emphasized the increasing importance of Asia and Asian trade to US policy. This does not sit well with Europeans, who see in it an implicit threat to turn elsewhere if GATT talks do not fall America's way. Broader policy base

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The core alliances of the US remain those with European friends, said a US official at a briefing for reporters on Christopher's travels. Europe is still America's most important trading partner.

But without the looming threat of the Soviet Union, it no longer makes sense to center the entire spectrum of US foreign policies around US-European relationships, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

``I think in the post-cold-war world no one would argue that we should conduct a Eurocentric foreign policy,'' the official said.

From Europe, Secretary Christopher will travel on to Jersualem on Friday evening. Though the schedule for the Middle East portion of his trip remains murky, he is expected to quickly meet Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat to try to push them to agreement on implementing limited Palestinian self-rule.

Dec. 13 is the deadline for an Israeli troop pullout from the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, where self-rule is to begin. But talks are stalled over three issues: control of border crossings, the definition of the size of Jericho, and the problem of Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli hands. A Rabin quid pro quo

News media reports in Israel indicated that Mr. Rabin may offer gradual release of prisoners in an effort to break the deadlock. Yesterday, a top Israeli official, Police Minister Moshe Shahal, said he had held secret talks with PLO counterparts to try to get things going.

Palestinian negotiators have said that the 600 prisoners released so far are only a symbolic gesture and that thousands more should be let free.

Violence in the occupied territories continues to threaten the PLO-Israeli agreement. Since the deal was signed in Washington, unrest has claimed the lives of 29 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, according to reports from the region.

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