News Analysis: As Deep Freeze Engulfs Peace, U.S. Weighs Shift from Sidelines
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News Analysis: As Deep Freeze Engulfs Peace, U.S. Weighs Shift from Sidelines

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American frustration with Israel and the Palestinians reached new heights this week as the deep freeze in the Middle East peace process entered its third month.

As questions persist over the Clinton administration’s short-term commitment to reentering the peacemaking fray, U.S. officials continue to grapple over how and when to come off the diplomatic sidelines.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wants the parties to “make some hard decisions” that will bring them back together, but so far Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat appear as far from compromise as ever.

Albright and President Clinton have indicated that they will not wait much longer to launch an American initiative to try and resolve the impasse, but the shape and scope of their next step is unclear.

The next U.S. peace move could include Albright’s first trip to the region as secretary of state, according to State Department officials and those familiar with Clinton’s thinking on the matter.

But the administration, whose own attempt to jump-start the talks failed last month, is now waiting for Egypt to exhaust its peace initiative before deciding if the time is ripe for renewed American engagement, officials said.

For months, U.S. officials have been saying the parties know what it will take to get the process back on track: a broad Palestinian commitment to fighting terror and Israeli confidence-building measures.

But Palestinian furor over Israeli construction of Jewish housing at Har Homa in Jerusalem, coupled with Palestinian violence and terror, has kept the parties away from the negotiating table.

This lack of progress has the Clinton administration performing a delicate balancing act — trying to keep the region from exploding while waiting for the parties to decide to reopen negotiations.

U.S. mediators had hoped that a March accord resulting in Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank town of Hebron would spur the parties to new agreements.

That accord marked the first time in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process that the United States was called upon to broker and to guarantee an accord.

Since then, the United States has decided that the parties must make the next move without American arm twisting. Otherwise, U.S. officials and veteran Middle East watchers fear that Netanyahu and Arafat will come to rely too heavily on American guarantees and never build the trust necessary for a lasting peace.

Last weekend, Clinton laid out what it would take to get peace talks back on track.

“We have to find a way to persuade the Palestinians that there is a basis for returning to the negotiation table, and that all the final- status issues are not going to be resolved out from under them,” Clinton told reporters after last weekend’s global economic summit in Denver.

He was referring to Israeli construction in Har Homa and settlement construction in the West Bank, White House officials later said.

“The Israelis, for their part, have got to find specific things that can be done that show that there is a commitment to Oslo — in fact, not just in words — and a commitment to getting this process going,” Clinton said, referring to the agreements between Israel and the Palestinians collectively known as the Oslo accords.

“But we also have to find a way to persuade the Israelis that the Palestinians are serious about security,” he said.

So far Netanyahu and Arafat have failed to take up Clinton’s challenge, and U.S. officials have stepped up criticism of both sides.

In an uncharacteristically blunt speech at a Tel Aviv economic forum, Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told his predominately Israeli audience: “We cannot want this peace more than you do.”

Indyk added: “You are big boys now. It is not up to the United States to save Israel despite itself. It is up to you.”

Albright sent a similar message when she said in a television interview over the weekend, “The United States plays a key role, but we cannot play that role if the parties do not make some hard decisions.”

It is apparently these decisions that Washington is awaiting before taking a more proactive role.

The current “hands-off” strategy, instead of pressuring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, has drawn mounting global criticism of U.S. policy.

But Albright and Clinton are defending their position, even as they are sketchy about the details of their next step.

“You should never believe that just because you don’t see high-level air transport between Washington and the Middle East that nothing is going on from our point of view,” Clinton said in Denver.

At the same time, U.S. officials acknowledge that the waiting game gets increasingly dangerous the longer the stalemate continues.

In fact, this week, two terrorist attacks were foiled.

In one a would-be suicide bomber, a Palestinian woman, was detained by Arafat’s police after her family found a farewell note. In a separate incident, Israeli police defused a bomb-laden bag found on a Tel Aviv beach near a group of children.

So for now, the U.S. diplomatic machine continues to try to figure out how to resolve the crisis in the peace process.

“I cannot tell you how many nights that I have had difficulty sleeping, racking my brain trying to come up with some new thing I could do or say to try to pierce the difficulties of the moment,” Clinton told Jewish Democratic contributors in a recent speech.

By all accounts, Clinton is about to decide that “new thing” very soon.

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