Leading Article: Two sets of peace talks, but only one honest broker - America

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The Independent Culture
ON OPPOSITE sides of the North Sea this week, in Oslo and in Belfast, two entirely separate but oddly similar searches for peace grind on. President Clinton is in Norway to meet the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the hope that a summit on the fourth anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin can speed progress towards a Middle East settlement. At Stormont Castle, meanwhile, Sinn Fein and the Unionists, under the infinitely patient tutelage of the former US Senator George Mitchell, are once again trying to break the deadlock over arms decommissioning that now endangers the entire Ulster peace process.

Though geographically far apart, the Irish and Middle Eastern disputes have not a little in common. Their very intractability reflects a shared mentality of the "zero sum game" - the conviction of the negotiating parties that a gain by the other side is automatically a loss for themselves, overlooking the fact that the populations that they purport to represent are overwhelmingly prepared to make concessions in the name of a lasting peace. Partly as a result, both sets of talks are in a curious no man's land where no breakthrough seems likely, yet no breakdown will prove terminal. And, last but not least, in each case the US is involved.

This has been a shameful autumn for American foreign policy. The Senate has recklessly rejected the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The Clinton administration seems hell bent on antagonising Russia and most of the rest of the world by scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that for 27 years has helped prevent an atomic Armageddon. The White House and Congress cannot even agree to make good Washington's $1.5bn arrears to the United Nations. One way and another, America's moral authority in international affairs is at its lowest since the end of the Cold War. But as President Clinton likes to say - and as the Middle East and Ulster prove - it remains "the indispensable nation".

Ultimately, of course, only the direct parties to these conflicts will resolve them; no outside power can impose an unwanted agreement. Equally, however, intractable disputes need mediators, and in both cases the US is the only one around. It is the one country that Israel trusts - but by the same token the only power that Arabs believe is remotely capable of inducing Israel to do something that it does not much want to do.

Similarly, after some initial missteps, the US has emerged as the only plausible "honest broker" in the Irish argument, having won the confidence first of the nationalists and now of the Unionists.

There is a final factor that argues for a little optimism. Bill Clinton may already be depicted as the lamest of ducks, bereft of a Congress majority, sullied by the Monica Lewinsky affair and unable to ensure that his appointed successor Al Gore wins even the Democratic nomination, let alone the White House. But never write off a president in search of his legacy.

At home, Mr Clinton may be a spent force. But the American system allows a president much greater latitude in foreign affairs. As of now he will be remembered as the man who enlarged Nato and brought Mexico into the North American Free Trade Agreement. But his dream is to go down as the statesman who brought peace to the Middle East and Ireland. In both cases the odds must be against him. However, we may be sure that this time, with uncharacteristic steadfastness, Mr Clinton will persevere to the bitter end.