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Now Clinton Can Get Back To Mideast Peacemaking

Election over, new team ready, time for 'assertive evenhandedness'

Once President Clinton's new foreign policy team settles into office next month, the administration must take a more assertive approach toward Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Not only political and diplomatic prestige but vital American interests are at stake.

The violence in the West Bank this September and the haggling over Hebron have been unambiguous signals that the Middle East peace process is in danger of collapse. US officials, often distracted by other world events, have been slow to comprehend the implications of Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu's electoral victory. With the US elections over, Washington must redefine its role as an honest broker, renew its commitment to the Oslo process, and shepherd Israel and the Palestinians toward cooperation.

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A top priority for Madeleine Albright, as secretary of state, and Samuel Berger, as national security adviser, must be to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Seven proposals for a new strategy of "assertive evenhandedness":

1. After the inauguration, Mr. Clinton and his team must publicly acknowledge a crisis in the peace process and reiterate a commitment to implementing the Oslo accords.

2. Washington must not personalize its diplomacy - as former Secretary of State James Baker did with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Public confrontation with Mr. Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, or other leaders in the region is counterproductive and inappropriate for an honest broker.

'If-it's-Tuesday' diplomacy

3. Clinton needs to appoint a high-profile mediator to oversee the negotiations and provide a much-needed spark to US diplomacy. Too often the administration has been immobilized by crises like Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia. A strategy of "if it's Tuesday it must be Zaire" weakens the constant, focused mediation required at this delicate stage in the Middle East peace talks. A special mediator with authority from the president would inject new urgency, import, and resolve.

4. To salvage its role as mediator the US must not be complacent toward Israeli settlement policy. The Clinton administration has not done enough to reiterate long-standing policy that settlement expansion is an obstacle to peace. The $10 billion in US loan guarantees was made possible by Israel's pledge to freeze settlement activity, a pledge Washington should not forget. The US needs to reassert leadership in the donor countries conference and speed aid to the Palestinians. While guarantees of fiscal propriety from Mr. Arafat are important, this concern has too often blinded the donor countries and the International Monetary Fund.

5. Washington should open an official liaison office with the Palestinian Authority and name a high-ranking ambassador to the post. Such a move, while not implying recognition of Palestinian statehood, would strengthen the US's role as an honest broker, restore Palestinian trust in its mediation, and bolster its image among the Palestinian people.

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6. An official diplomatic mission inside the Palestinian areas would also help the US monitor Arafat's pledge to aggressively combat terrorism - a commitment that must remain a condition for US-Palestinian relations.

7. America's new Middle East strategy must send a clear message to Capitol Hill: The executive branch is the engine that drives foreign policy. Congress should adhere to its oversight, appropriation, and investigative role. The recent bill to move the US embassy to Jerusalem set a dangerous and damaging precedent.

American credibility and prestige are inextricably linked to the Oslo accords. A collapse of the process would lead to heightened Israeli-Arab tension, and might foster Israel's return to a siege mentality. In the post-cold-war era, "fortress Israel" does not serve any vital US interest. A stalemate or collapse of the peace process would increase regional instability, strain the US-Israel alliance, threaten vital US interests in the Gulf, undercut US relations with Egypt, and embolden extremists throughout the Middle East. The US must remain actively and assertively engaged, since the peace process serves a wide variety of US interests.

Hope in Bibi's opportunism

Mutual political will is necessary for any new US diplomatic effort. Despite campaign rhetoric, Netanyahu has not explicitly abandoned the Oslo accords. His reputation for political opportunism provides a glimmer of hope to supporters of the process Yitzhak Rabin launched in 1993. He can claim at least a 70 percent mandate for peace (Shimon Peres's 49.5 percent, plus moderates in the Likud-led coalition). Former Likud leader Menachem Begin and the Camp David accords provide a telling analogy. As for Arafat, he remains committed to the agreements with Israel and has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate with Netanyahu. He is a realist and knows there's no choice but to cut a deal with Bibi.

Norway, Russia, and France have introduced initiatives of their own, but only Washington commands the resources and trust to be a catalyst for peace. While a new, assertive approach may lead to serious disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem, they must not detract from the constancy of the US-Israel special relationship and America's commitment to Israel's qualitative military edge.

Continued stalemate on the Israeli-Palestinian track will prevent progress toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, erode Israel's recent diplomatic gains, and breed intense desperation among Palestinians - who may find themselves trapped in South Africa-style Bantustans. With the logjam threatening to erase three years of historic diplomatic achievements, the Clinton administration must rise to the occasion. If not, the Middle East may again see rivers of blood, and - as the late Yitzhak Rabin warned - all that may be left of the peace process are "color snapshots and empty mementos."

S.B. Lasensky was a public affairs officer in New York (1993-95) for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

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