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Behind the Headlines: After Election Dust Settles, U.S. Will Push Peace Process Forward

The Clinton administration has a simple message for Israelis and Palestinians: The peace process must move forward without delay.

As soon as Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak forms his coalition, the State Department plans to execute a Middle East plan that has been carefully crafted during the last five months of stalemate, since Israel began its election campaign.

Now that Barak has defeated Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. officials believe there is a better chance of serious negotiations.

“I will continue to work energetically for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace that strengthens Israel’s security,” President Clinton said in a statement released by the White House moments after he congratulated Barak on his victory in a telephone call.

Clinton, who said “the people of Israel have given the new prime minister a strong mandate,” called Barak to “reaffirm our nation’s steadfast support for Israel and its people.”

Clinton also spoke to Netanyahu by phone to “thank him for his dedicated service to Israel.”

Observers expect relations between Washington and Jerusalem to improve from what has come to be known as Clinton’s policy of “snub diplomacy.” Clinton, who had repeatedly refused to meet with Netanyahu, saw Arafat on two occasions and met with top figures from Israel’s Labor and centrist parties.

Barak, who enjoys good relations with the Pentagon from his days as the Israeli army chief of staff, has also developed solid ties with the White House during meetings with Clinton and top administration officials, according to an administration official.

The Clinton administration, whose preference for Barak was no secret, made it clear even before the election that it wanted to see progress on the political front.

“Whether in the Balkans or the Middle East, America is on the side of those who are committed to peace, to uphold law and to judge others not on the basis of who they are but on how they act and whether they respect the rights of others,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said recently.

With this in mind, the next few months will see the latest in a series of opportunities in the peace process, U.S. officials say.

The administration’s plan includes:

Immediate calls for full implementation of the Wye accord;

Direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians without U.S. mediation;

Opening final-status talks with a goal of completing an agreement in one year;

A three-way summit within six months hosted by President Clinton; and

A new push with Lebanon and Syria to start direct talks with Israel.

“There is no acceptable alternative to the pursuit of peace,” said Dennis Ross, the chief U.S. Middle East negotiator.

The administration’s push comes at a critical time for Middle East peace. The Palestinians and Israelis missed a deadline earlier this month to resolve the “final status” of the most sensitive issues, including Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, borders and Palestinian refugees. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat backed down from threats to unilaterally declare statehood only after the European Union promised to support such a declaration if a negotiated solution is not found.

With so much at stake, the United States is hoping for major breakthroughs in 2000.

“I’m hopeful both sides will engage on substance,” said Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Clinton believes that the path to peace lies in the pages of last October’s Wye accord, U.S. officials said.

The agreement produced a 12-week timetable that married specific Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorism with Israeli redeployments from the West Bank.

The Palestinians agreed, among other things, to clamp down on terrorists, seize illegal weapons, move to stop incitement and amend the Palestinian Covenant, which called for Israel’s destruction.

In exchange, Israel agreed, among other things, to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank in three stages and open a safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Implementation of the three-phase accord froze after the first four weeks.

“On the Palestinian side, we have seen serious efforts to prevent terror strikes, to renounce the Palestinian covenant and to avoid a unilateral declaration of statehood,” Albright said recently.

“On the Israeli side, implementation has stalled,” she said.

According to U.S. officials, the White House wants to restart the time line of the Wye accord shortly after Barak forms a new government and his Cabinet is in place.

Observers expect Ross to travel to the region as early as next month to work toward this goal.

At the same time that the sides are implementing their past obligations, the United States wants the Israelis and Palestinians to engage in final-status negotiations with the “objective” of completing them within one year, Albright said.

U.S. officials further hope that the Palestinians and Israelis will begin negotiating with each other without U.S. mediation.

Since the 1997 Hebron Agreement, which transferred rule over the West Bank city to the Palestinians, the two sides have been unable to conduct serious policy talks without help from U.S. officials.

This has been a major source of concern for State Department officials, who have had to step in to resolve the most basic issues, officials said.

Ross recalled an incident last year when Israel and the Palestinian Authority immediately turned to him to resolve a “relatively minor” dispute over a road in Gaza.

Both sides urgently called Ross in Washington, who said he “had to step in.”

“They should have been able to solve this themselves,” said Ross, who negotiated a successful compromise.

But during stalemates, the sides “lose the capacity to resolve differences,” he said.

Before the election, U.S. officials were optimistic that a Barak victory would improve relations with the Palestinians. One official cited Barak’s criticism of the “tone and tenor” that Netanyahu has taken with Arafat in pubic and private conversations.

But even if the two sides begin direct talks, U.S. officials have no illusions that the process will be easy.

“Negotiations will always take longer than most people think,” even when the Israelis and Palestinians have the strongest relationship and sense of partnership, Ross said.

This is an “existential conflict” and both sides are not going to rush, he said, because there is no room for mistakes.

“They need to satisfy themselves that they are not giving up too much.”

And that’s why Indyk continues to repeat Clinton’s promise made to Yitzhak Rabin before and during the signing of the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

“It’s Israel that has to make the tangible concessions. And if the government of Israel takes risks for peace, our role is to minimize those risks,” he said.

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