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NEWS ANALYSIS Questions of direction persist in wake of failed Mideast mission

WASHINGTON, May 20 (JTA) — Dennis Ross is no stranger to personal attacks. Whenever the peace process hits a bump in the road, it seems someone gives the U.S. Middle East envoy a verbal beating. During the late 1980s, when Israel came under U.S. pressure, some American Jews said Ross was a traitor to the Jewish people.
When Benjamin Netanyahu, as opposition leader in Israel, battled the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, he attacked Ross for leading Israel down a path to doom. Now, as Israeli-Palestinian relations remain in a deep freeze, the pointman for U.S. peace process policy once again is facing stinging criticisms. The criticisms come as questions abound over the direction that Clinton’s second-term administration will take in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. They also come as new diplomatic players are poised to take key positions in the administration. The most public attack on Ross came from Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, who wrote to President Clinton last week to complain about Ross. Other senior Palestinian officials argued this week with renewed vigor that Ross favors Israel, and some now say publicly that perhaps he is too Jewish to lead the negotiations. These attacks on Ross come after the seasoned diplomat failed in his latest attempt to break a two-month impasse in Israeli-Palestinian talks. Both the White House and the State Department are standing firmly behind the U.S. official who has toiled for almost 10 years for Middle East peace. Thus, after Arafat initially refused to meet with Ross last Friday, at the end of his two-week shuttle mission, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem told reporters that by refusing to meet with Ross, Arafat was refusing to meet with President Clinton. The Palestinian leader hastily reversed course and received Ross, who had already left for the airport to return to the United States. To make sure that the Palestinians got the message, Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued statements supporting Ross. They also plan to send him back to the region as early as next week. Bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to face-to-face negotiations continues to dominate the American agenda for the Middle East. Talks stalled after Israel began constructing Jewish housing at Har Homa, in southeastern Jerusalem, and a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israeli women at a Tel Aviv cafe. But as the U.S. administration seeks the elusive formula required to rebuild trust between Israelis and Palestinians,
pressure is mounting, often in competing directions, from the Palestinian Authority and Israel — and even from Washington. One view, backed by Arafat and Israelis supportive of the peace accords, known commonly as the Oslo process, are calling for greater American activism. But U.S. officials have already dimmed the chances for Arafat’s call for Clinton to step up his personal involvement to break the impasse. In an unusually blunt speech Sunday, Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said, “The core bargain of Oslo has broken down.” There is no “trust” between Israelis and Palestinians, he said. U.S. diplomats say the Palestinians and Israelis must first recommit themselves to peace talks. “They’ve got to want progress in the negotiations more than us,” said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. “We’ll be there with them, we’ll mediate for them. But if they don’t step up to the plate and compromise with each other, there isn’t going to be peace in the Middle East.” But if the impasse continues, with all of its attendant risks of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence, some rethinking in the U.S. approach may come, especially after Albright fills out her team. American activists point to staff changes about to become finalized that will bring Stuart Eizenstat and Thomas Pickering into Albright’s inner circle of top State Department officials. Eizenstat is the undersecretary of commerce who just completed a searing report on Switzerland’s dealings with Nazi Germany. Veteran Middle East expert Thomas Pickering has served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, Jordan and the United Nations. While neither official will have direct responsibility for Middle East policy, both may bring considerable experience and fresh thinking to policy-making at Foggy Bottom. Indyk, who has worked with Ross for months to secure a package of Israeli concessions and Palestinian understandings aimed at rebuilding trust, is set to return to Washington to head the Near East office at the State Department. Whether these officials advocate a more activist role for Albright, who has so far shied away from direct day-to-day Middle East problems, will likely depend as much on the parties to the talks as on the thinking at the White House. Rumors that Vice President Al Gore asked Clinton to refrain from pressuring Israel in order to avoid alienating potential Jewish voters for his anticipated presidential campaign in the year 2000 were denied by White House officials. However, one political operative said, “If we’re going to do it, do it now,” not two years from now when Gore is in a primary battle. Meanwhile, the United States is looking for proof that the Israelis and Palestinians are serious about moving forward, said one official. The formula has been on the table for months, he said, referring to the package of concessions that Israel is prepared to offer the Palestinians if security cooperation resumes and Arafat renews a crackdown on terrorism. But the Palestinians also want an Israeli pledge to stop expanding West Bank settlements. Netanyahu has refused and so far Clinton, who has himself expressed concern about settlements, has not pressed Israel on the issue. However, in a sign that the Clinton administration is concerned about settlement activity, U.S. officials confirmed a Ha’aretz report this week that the United States had prepared a study that found that one quarter of the homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank are vacant. The report apparently was intended to refute Israeli claims that they need to build onto existing settlements to meet housing needs. Israeli Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu said the figures in the report far overstated the reality. As Ross prepares for another attempt at reviving the talks, and the Clinton administration considers its approach, the United States is not about to walk away altogether. “We must restore the integrity of the negotiating process,” Gore said in an address to the Anti-Defamation League in Washington this week. “Solutions will not always arrive through dramatic gestures. More often they will arrive from patient, steady, determined diplomacy,” Gore said. “We’re in this for the long term.” (JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)