News Analysis: Despite Good Barak-arafat Relations, U.S. Playing Central Role in Peace Talks

On the eve of Ehud Barak’s first trip to Washington as Israel’s new prime minister in July, he made clear he wanted to reduce the level of U.S. involvement in the peace process that had been necessary during the tenure of his predecessor.

But with only three months until the date Israel and the Palestinians have set for an outline of a final peace settlement — and 10 months for a final deal – - that appears unlikely.

A number of recent actions and statements by the United States and the desire of President Clinton to broker a peace deal to cap off his presidency before he leaves office in early 2001 signal that the United States will play a key role in the final-status negotiations that began last week.

Trying to end what he called a “false” debate over how to characterize the exact nature of the U.S. role, Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser, said recently that the United States will play a “central” role in the peace process.

“I’ve considered it an artificial question from the beginning,” he said in a speech here last month to the Israel Policy Forum.

“But labeling seems to be the order of the day, so labels there have been. Are we or should we be facilitators or rather mediators or perhaps brokers or partners or catalysts or middlemen? I view this discussion as academic because it is wholly divorced from reality.”

The United States will be “central to the peace process not only because the parties want it that way, but because it is a strategic imperative for the United States,” Berger said.

While in Oslo earlier this month for talks with Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Clinton said the United States was prepared to host a Camp David-style summit early next year to help the sides reach a broad outline of a final deal.

U.S. officials also have said that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to travel to the Middle East early next year and that Dennis Ross, the U.S. special Middle East coordinator — who was in Israel and the Palestinian territories this week — is expected to travel to the region frequently as the negotiations continue.

“Barak knows nothing is going to happen without a Camp David-style summit,” said IPF’s Washington director, Tom Smerling, who said the Palestinians are looking for the close involvement of the Americans to help balance the power between them and the Israelis.

Clinton and Barak also were expected to meet this week on the sidelines of a security conference that was bringing together members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact. During their meeting in Turkey, where the conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was taking place, Clinton and Barak were expected to discuss the latest developments in the Middle East peace process.

Another key move signaling that the United States will play an intimate role is President Clinton’s decision — reportedly at the request of Barak — to send Martin Indyk back for a second stint as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

By going back to Israel, Indyk, currently the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, a position that deals with the entire region, will be able to focus on his specialty — the peace process.

At his Senate confirmation hearing late last month, Indyk said the key for the United States is to “provide a safety net” by suggesting ideas to break deadlocks as the two sides discuss the most difficult issues separating them: Jerusalem, settlements, Palestinians statehood, refugees, final borders and water resources.

But Indyk, who was confirmed last week by the Senate, also made clear that the president is ready to play a more active role in the talks.

“The president is committed to being directly engaged himself,” Indyk said in response to a senator’s question about the U.S. role.

“But he’s not going to do that unless he has a sense that his involvement can be useful — that his involvement will not be an excuse for the parties not to make the decisions, but rather, his involvement will serve the purpose of resolving the issues. And so I think with that very high-level commitment from the president and the secretary of state, we can play a very important role, a role we’ve played traditionally.”

Shibley Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat chair for peace and development at the University of Maryland and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that despite the improved working relationship between Israel and the Palestinians since Barak’s election, “the level of presidential involvement” is the “highest that it has been in any previous time” of the negotiations.

Clinton’s desire to reach a deal before he leaves office as part of his presidential legacy, along with the feeling among U.S. officials that there is an historic opportunity to finally end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is driving the high level of involvement, he said.

Clinton, who since Barak’s election has regularly spoken with the prime minister and Arafat by phone, seems prepared to prod the two sides as they inch closer to a final deal.

“The issues are very, very tough,” Clinton said when asked during a recent on- line town meeting whether he thought there would be any progress in the talks before he left office.

“But I think the chances of success are better than 50-50. And with a lot of prayers and a lot of pushing, maybe we’ll make it.”

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