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US Election Stalls Mideast Peace

With second term at stake, Clinton treads lightly on Israel's new leader

America's role as shepherd of Mideast peace - goading reluctant parties to compromise - will be on hold until after the November presidential election, say many Arabs and Israelis.

Despite President Clinton's strong commitment to finding peace, Arabs are disappointed that he has not tempered the hard-line policies of Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes many aspects of the peace process set by the previous, Labor Party-led government.

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But analysts and US officials say any effort by Mr. Clinton to pressure Mr. Netanyahu would invite a voter backlash among many American Jews in a few key electoral states.

The result - despite a new round of diplomacy by US Mideast envoy Dennis Ross this week - is a peace process now seen as stalled, in part, because of US domestic politics.

"Clinton is in a difficult position: He can't afford to disengage, but Arab pressure and the situation on the ground demands action," says Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The visit by Mr. Ross is designed to "create the image of movement, even if things are not moving," Mr. Gilboa says.

Netanyahu has not curbed his tough campaign rhetoric since he became Israel's first directly elected prime minister in June. He rejects the land-for-peace formula that was the policy cornerstone for both the previous Labor government and the Clinton administration.

Nor will the right-wing, Likud-led government compromise on security, the prime minister has vowed. He rules out a Palestinian state, Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, and ceding control of Jerusalem.

Jubilant Jewish settlers have declared that under Netanyahu they will now triple their numbers in the occupied areas of the West Bank and Gaza.

These policies appear to chart a collision course with Washington and have brought angry threats from Arab capitals. But Clinton is seen to be treating Israel's premier with kid gloves.

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"We've got an election coming up, so make your own analysis," says a United States official who asked not to be named. "A lot of forces are at play, and everything is not moving in exactly the same direction."

Part of the reason, analysts say, is because the subtext of any political discussion in the Middle East these days is the American election, and how it impacts the peace process.

The administration's plain support for former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, an architect of the peace process, during the Israeli election campaign has also complicated Clinton's relations with Netanyahu.

Though Clinton has proven to be among the most pro-Israel presidents of recent decades, during Netanyahu's first state visit to Washington two weeks ago the two leaders were reported to be meticulously formal with each other - overly formal, by the president's standard of personal diplomacy. Talks were chilly.

Clinton said that the peace process was undergoing "a period of adjustment," and openly grimaced when Netanyahu spoke about Jewish settlement policy.

"In an election year, you don't want to alienate anybody, so is it wise to apply major pressure on Israel? No," says Mr. Gilboa. "If it were clear that Clinton will win, it could free him up to take more action."

Studies show, he notes, that American Jews overwhelmingly support whatever government is in power in Israel, regardless of its policies, and that support for Netanyahu is already growing in the US. Any tangling with Israel by Clinton could incite their wrath.

Seymour Reich, president of the New York-based American Zionist Movement, says Netanyahu will have a "honeymoon" until the US elections, but this will change after the vote. "It won't make a difference if Clinton or [Republican presidential candidate Bob] Dole is in the White House. The US is committed to peace, and while it is concerned with 'peace with security' [Netanyahu's campaign slogan] ... it will encourage the Likud government to move forward. Nothing crucial will happen in the next four months. The tough issues will come later."

In his first visit to an Arab state since assuming office, Netanyahu held talks in Cairo Thursday with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and said Israel would abide by the agreements of the previous government.

Talks with Mr. Mubarak - whose country was the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel in 1978 - are a small step meant to allay Arab fears about any lapse in the peace process. But any face-to-face meeting with Syria's president Hafez al-Assad - once a major player in peace talks, now branded as a "terrorist" by the prime minister and his Cabinet - is a long way off.

The Israeli media report that Netanyahu's continued boldness in the face of obvious US discomfort results from his belief that his "honeymoon" will last until next April: through the US election, and then for several months until the new administration hammers out a Mideast policy.

But unrest is growing among Palestinians, who expect at least some concessions that were agreed to by the previous Labor government. They most want an Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron - which has been delayed since March.

Warnings of disaster for the peace process are coming from many quarters. Defeated Labor leader Mr. Peres, speaking on Israel TV, said: "The Likud government is making a grave mistake that will bring the country to a very difficult situation. They will not bring peace."

Similar anxiety has been voiced in the Arab press. An editorial in Syria's official Al Thawra newspaper underlined Arab thinking that has grown in currency in the region, and which will do little to encourage Mr. Ross during his Mideast mission.

The paper accused Netanyahu of taking advantage of US electoral politics: "The ugly exploitation of the American presidential elections and the attempts to blackmail the American position ... should not force, under any circumstances, the [US] administration ... to submit to the pressures of the Zionist lobby," it said.

The difficulty faced by the president is highlighted by reports that a high percentage of Clinton's 1992 campaign financing came from Jewish sources, said Gilboa of Hebrew University.

If Clinton pressures Netanyahu now - despite Clinton's past closeness to Israel and his strong record with the peace process - a backlash by American Jews could weaken his run for president.

Jewish voters in the US, Gilboa says, "will remember the pushing, and not the record."

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