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Divorce, Holbrooke Style

DIVORCE is frequently a metaphor for the separation now under way in Israel-Palestine. It's also sometimes used to describe the savage split-up of what was once viewed as brave Hitler- and Stalin-defying Yugoslavia but is now seen as battering marital partners demanding each other's communal property.

That metaphor is simplistic. But it may help to describe what American negotiator Richard Holbrooke and NATO are now trying to accomplish.

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The West failed at counseling reconciliation. It has at last won agreement to a cease-fire, but the property settlement and its supervision are only beginning to be hammered out. The divorce lawyer, Mr. Holbrooke, has been traveling from party to party. He now wants to sit them down in Washington to draw up details of that property settlement. NATO, led once more by the US, will police the marital cease-fire and the eventual property division.

''Led once more by the US'' means that the 25,000 American troops long promised by President Clinton are to be the backbone of a UN-endorsed, NATO-run buffer force.

Bosnia's Serbs demand a loose tie to Bosnia, aiming eventually to affiliate with Serbia. Bosnia's Muslims demand a strong state to prevent that. US troops are likely to become an irresistible magnet for both, since any threat toward them will grab American public attention, particularly in an election year.

Once, the aim of outside diplo-macy might have been to bind the former Yugoslav partners back together in the hope that Swissification might some day take place. Now diplomacy's main aim is to make sure the bitterly divided partners are sufficiently satisfied with the property settlement to allow peacekeepers to buffer them from each other.

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