WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (JTA) — The tireless work of President Clinton’s Middle East peace envoy has, at least for now, transformed the American role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “We were not an intermediary. We were in fact a broker,” Dennis Ross said after receiving a hero’s welcome at the State Department upon his return from the Middle East. Some are concerned that the change in role, necessitated by the mistrust that had developed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, could bode ill for additional progress. “There obviously was a very different kind of American role in this negotiation than has been the case previously,” Ross said, referring to the Hebron deal completed last week between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. As reward for his work, Clinton awarded the 48-year-old father of three with prime viewing seats in the presidential box for the Inaugural Parade on Monday. Ross, who also played a key role in Middle East peacemaking in the Bush administration, made the inaugural rounds with his family over the weekend, including a stop at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for a speech by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Ross’ role in transforming the history of the Middle East both abroad and at home has won him widespread praise. He is hailed for helping to change perceptions and personalities of key Middle East players. But he is also known for bringing his gift at the negotiating table to his own back yard. Three years ago, at a time when the United States was trying to bring Israel and Syria together, Ross brought the Syrian and Israeli ambassadors together at his son’s Bar Mitzvah. Indeed, last week’s deal on Hebron, which allowed for the transfer of 80 percent of the town to Palestinian self-rule and for future Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, has created a new window of opportunity for progress on the long-stalled Israeli-Syrian track, several U.S. officials said in recent days. “We have an opportunity now to advance the peace process,” Martin Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel, told reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday. “As part of that process, we will be looking at ways of developing a formula that will make it possible to resume negotiations between Israel and Syria.” Talks between Israel and Syria were suspended last spring, after a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israel. But while the United States has always played a critical role in the tenuous Israeli-Syrian talks, such an enhanced role on the Israeli- Palestinian front is new. When Israelis and Palestinians launched their secret negotiations in Oslo in 1993, American officials were made aware of the details only when the deal was done. When the time came to negotiate interim agreements, Palestinians and Israelis holed up together to hammer out the details. Ross and his peace process team remained close by and offered suggestions, but never took the lead twisting arms and proposing specific solutions. This time around, a change in Israeli government and the ensuing strained relations with Arafat, led to the increased U.S. role. Most significantly, neither side would pen the deal without side letters crafted by Ross and signed by outgoing Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The letters lay out what moves Washington expects from Arafat and Netanyahu. While the letters fall short of an explicit guarantee, the U.S. commitment gives both leaders a new address for protests if either side falls short of its promises. The Palestinians pledged to stop terrorism and take more steps to replace the Palestinian Covenant. For its part, Israel promised the United States that it would withdraw from more of the West Bank in three stages, beginning next month and completing its redeployment by mid-1998. The American correspondence marks the first time that the sides required such assurances since they signed the 1993 Oslo accords on the White House lawn. “The United States has now taken a role that it has not taken in the past,” said Joel Singer, former chief Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians and now an attorney practicing in Washington. “The United States will now, so to speak, be the keeper of the record in terms of monitoring the compliance of both parties and the judge of whether this side or that side is complying with the commitments included in the Hebron package.” Said Adam Garfinkle, director of the Middle East Council of the Foreign Policy Research Institute: “Now, every time there is a problem in relations with Israel, Arafat will turn to the United States for the heavy lifting.” The change in strategy has opened the question of whether such intense involvement in the peace process will continue. For his part, Ross said he would like the parties to reassume the lead. “In the long run, it’s not the kind of role that we want to be playing,” he said. “I think it’s better for everybody concerned if our role returns to that of being much more the facilitator, much more the supporter.” At the same time, he said, as long as “this kind of a role is necessary, we’ll play it.” The enhanced U.S. role could also mean that differences in the future could lead not only to renewed strains between Israel and the Palestinians but also between Washington and Jerusalem. For Singer, the new U.S. role represents a “mixed bag.” While Ross’ involvement was positive to the extent that it led to an agreement, “the bad element is that the two sides are back to the pre-Oslo days” where there is no agreement “face-to-face without a third-party involvement.” The real danger could come over a full-blown disagreement about Israel living up to its promises, Singer said. There is a “potential here if there is an allegation of non-compliance against Israel, and the United States determines as the keeper of the record” that Israel has not complied, “then a dispute that would have been limited to Israel and the Palestinians would now be an Israeli-United States dispute.” For the time being, however, last week’s accord improved relations between Netanyahu and Clinton, who had clearly been pushing for a deal on Hebron. Plans are in the works for a February visit to the White House for the Israeli premier. And while Christopher, who officially ended his duties on Monday, has returned to private life, Ross will continue his quest for a comprehensive Middle East peace. In one of the first personnel decisions by the new secretary of state, Madeleine Albright asked Ross to remain in position his as U.S. special Middle East coordinator.
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