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Mideast: Time for the US to step aside?

Can - and should - the United States hang onto its longstanding monopoly over Arab-Israeli peacemaking? With the current explosion of Middle East tensions occurring in the height of an American election, this question is urgent.

On the ground, escalation and counter-escalation have built a cycle of violence that cries out for external intervention. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak nor Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat looks able to rise above hurt, anger, and retribution, and take a longer view. Nor does President Clinton look well positioned to lead them in doing so.

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Perhaps only UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, bearing all the influence of the world's governments, can do what's needed. Any successful escape from the current cycle of violence requires both sides to radically de-escalate. No more Israeli tanks and helicopters firing large-caliber weapons into Palestinian dwellings. No more Palestinian police standing guard while mobs desecrate a Jewish holy site. How can Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat be persuaded to get back to the peace table? Given what is at stake - for America, for the whole Middle East, and for global stability - someone needs to undertake that persuasion.

That's where the problem lies. In an election season - and with his spouse running in New York - can Mr. Clinton risk doing that?

Persuading Barak to de-escalate will not be easy. Anti-Arab emotions are running high among Jewish Israelis. Public opinion and the military hierarchy to which he is close both urge Barak to "act tough" against the Palestinians, and in Lebanon.

Wiser Israelis see the folly of such incitement. They recall that Israeli escalations against the Palestinian intifadah of 1987-93 never succeeded in pacifying that situation. They recall, too, that when firebrand Ariel Sharon escalated tensions in Lebanon as defense minister in 1982, his march to Beirut brought about only a long and draining entanglement in Lebanon that lasted until earlier this year.

But those Israelis who urge restraint on Barak need solid outside support. They need tough-minded friends of Israel to point out that further escalation will only compound Israel's problems; that a solid and respectful peace with their neighbors remains the only way to secure Israel's long-term interests; that such a peace can't be built amid escalation and intimidation.

Clinton's supporters have argued loudly in the past that because he has been the most pro-Israel president ever, and is recognized as such by Israelis, he enjoys an unprecedented ability to "nudge" Israel toward the right decisions on war and peace. Now, with thousands of Middle Eastern lives and many key American interests at stake, it's time to use that influence.

But Clinton supporters have also said many other unhelpful things in the past. One is that the US cannot want peace in the Middle East more than the parties themselves. Nonsense! If the massively armed Israelis and the lightly armed Palestinians and Lebanese all remain gripped by raw, negative emotions, then that is precisely when a party that has its own clear interests in a Middle East at peace needs to step in. If Clinton won't do it, he should welcome UN intervention.

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The outlines of a workable peace have been clear for many years: two separate states, side-by-side in the Holy Land, with some form of sharing of Jerusalem. Compensation and resettlement for most of the Palestinian refugees. Mutual recognition between Israel and Palestine, and a commitment to living as mutually respectful neighbors. (And between Israel and Lebanon, at the very least, a speedy release of all hostages. Israel's hostage-holding there has never been adequately condemned by Washington, but must now be brought to a rapid end, along with Hizbullah's holding of three Israeli military hostages. Significantly, Germany and Russia, rather than Washington, took the lead on this one.)

The present escalation is particularly tragic, because 10 weeks ago at Camp David, Barak and Arafat seemed on the brink of a final peace. But Clinton, who had repeatedly postponed those talks, had not allowed them enough time to reach completion. Then, when they were suspended, he inaccurately blamed Arafat for the failure, though both sides showed new flexibility.

Now, in the Middle East, Clinton looks like an incurably lame duck. Let's hope he can waddle aside far enough to let Kofi Annan take an effective lead.

Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society