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NEWS ANALYSIS U.S. policy: First avert violence, then worry about final-status talks

WASHINGTON, March 18 (JTA) — As the Middle East peace process once again appears endangered, the primary goal of the Clinton administration is to prevent an outbreak of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. But facing an obstinate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an equally recalcitrant Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, the United States has found itself, as it often does in the peace process, up against formidable odds. Ever since Netanyahu vowed to build 6,500 Jewish homes in southeastern Jerusalem, President Clinton has spearheaded a strategy designed to bolster Arafat’s standing with the Palestinians, according to administration officials. This policy is based on the belief that such a boost would persuade Arafat to control Palestinian emotions on the ground. At the same time, Clinton hoped to rely on a reserve of good relations with Israel to pressure Netanyahu to postpone the project. On at least one count, the United States has failed. As the bulldozers broke ground on Har Homa on Tuesday, it became clear that the U.S. administration had not convinced Netanyahu to delay construction of the controversial Jewish housing project. And while there were no immediate outbreaks of serious violence as construction began, both White House and State Department officials said they believed that Arafat has fueled Palestinian calls for violence.
Arafat misrepresents his power when says he cannot control Palestinian anger, one official said. So once again, U.S. policy-makers are engaged in a delicate balancing act as they try to calm tensions between Netanyahu and Arafat. Their goals are clear even if the path to them is not. In the short term, U.S. mediators want to avoid violence and simply get Arafat and Netanyahu back on speaking terms. The longer-term goal — bringing the two sides together to seriously begin talks on final-status issues — appears more elusive. Those talks, which will tackle the thorny issues of Jerusalem, settlements, borders and refugees, originally had been slated to begin this week. Their fate is now far from certain. To attain these goals, U.S. officials first wanted to gain concessions from Netanyahu. Then the plan was to present Arafat with a package of concessions in exchange for a pledge of non-violence when the bulldozers began work at Har Homa. Netanyahu has already offered Arafat one concession Clinton sought: personal use of the airport in Gaza. Now U.S. officials are feverishly working with Netanyahu to present Arafat a package that includes concrete plans for opening the airport and a seaport to commercial traffic and free travel for Palestinian Authority officials. U.S. negotiators expressed less optimism that Israel would arrange for a “safe passage” land route between Gaza and the West Bank in the immediate future, but have included that possibility in the mix. Palestinian, Israeli and American officials all agree on at least one thing — only with concessions from Netanyahu will the parties get back to the negotiating table. Clinton’s effort to boost Arafat in order to prevent Palestinian violence began weeks ago. Sitting next to Arafat in the Oval Office, Clinton publicly criticized Netanyahu’s plan for Har Homa. The president amplified those comments at an East Room news conference a week later with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at his side. Then State Department spokesmen began to call Har Homa exclusively by its Arabic name, Jabal Abu Ghenaim, in a move widely seen to bolster Palestinian claims to the disputed land. After appeals from the Israeli Embassy, U.S. officials are now using both references. Clinton’s strongest diplomatic appeal came in a letter delivered to Netanyahu last week, a letter that Netanyahu rejected on the spot, officials said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu painted the president into a corner when he rejected Clinton’s personal appeal to postpone Har Homa,” said one U.S. official, expressing what appears to be a growing frustration with Israeli policy. The effort culminated last week when the United States tried to balance its veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel with the decision to send Jerusalem-based Consul General Edward Abington to a Gaza conference convened by Arafat. The decision on Gaza was met with a barrage of unusually strong criticism from members of Congress, including those from the president’s party. Republican lawmakers also weighed in against Clinton as did many Jewish groups. At least 100 lawmakers opposed the decision in letters to the president. U.S. officials saw the meeting as a way to let Arafat “blow off steam.” In the end, it was Abington who quashed a communique condemning Israel that Arafat wanted to release. Abington caught considerable flak for this at the meeting from representatives of Russia, Japan, the European Union and Arab League. Now that the building at Har Homa has begun, the Israelis are hoping that the Americans will work to lower Palestinian expectations. This was the message Natan Sharansky, Israel’s trade and industry minister, brought to Vice President Al Gore during a Washington meeting just hours after the bulldozers broke ground. Gore’s response to Sharansky was: “Israel is doing a very good job all by itself.” As the tensions over Har Homa escalate in the region, the fate of U.S. policy appears to be in Arafat’s court. Two critical questions remain: Will Palestinian violence be contained and will he come back to the table? “Right now the boycott is Arafat’s,” said one U.S. official. “We need to return to the table.”