The Middle East peace process begun early in the decade has been deadlocked for more than a year now - which really means it's slipping backward. The Arab governments who staked their future on that process - most emphatically the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat - have little to show their people. Discontent with the process is growing. Extremists, on all sides, too easily seize the initiative.
Much, though not all, of the responsibility for this situation rests with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With an eye on antipeace-process elements in his own coalition, he has been leery of giving any new ground (literally) to the Palestinians. It will take extraordinary energy, and political courage - from the Middle Eastern parties and the US, as mediator - to get the step-by-step process of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking back on track.
Instead, we see some American supporters of Israel - including 81 senators and 150 representatives - publicly urging the Clinton administration not to publicize any US peace proposal that may specify a further withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank.
That urging is misplaced. Washington should be making clear to Israel and the Palestinians - publicly and forcefully - what it hopes to see in the MIddle East. Start with a specific plan for Israeli withdrawal - that's squarely in line with decades-old US support for the land-for-peace formula. Then go on to provide some vision of the long-term benefits for everyone in the region if Israelis and Palestinians can learn to live in peace and cooperation. Include the real possibility of peace between Israel and Syria too, and Lebanon as well.
On the Palestinian side of the ledger, require continued efforts to hold violent extremists in check. That job may never be done to the complete satisfaction of Mr. Netanyahu. But the arrest this week of Palestinian suspects in the killing of one of Hamas's top bombmakers shows that Mr. Arafat's people can genuinely cooperate on this front.
The US has to rise to its role as catalyst for Mideast peace. Certainly diplomats like shuttle negotiator Dennis Ross are trying very hard. But crucial energy has to come from the top. President Clinton needs to jar the process into motion. Without that energy, the US shares a major part of the responsibility for a foundering peace process.