US says peace process dead in the water

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AT THE best of times Dennis Ross, the United States peace envoy, looks like a spaniel down on its luck, but after the failure of his latest four-day effort to breath life into the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians he left Israel looking particularly doleful.

He has reason to. James Rubin, the US State Department spokesman in Washington, admitted that the peace process was in "dire straits" and listed the topics on which there was no progress. The most important of these is the Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank, as envisaged by the Oslo accords, with Israel offering for the present stage of the pull-back just 9 per cent, the US insisting on 13.1 per cent and the Palestinians a long way from the 30 per cent they originally expected to get.

Both sides are taking "unilateral steps" to pre-empt final-status negotiations, Mr Rubin said. The most significant of these is the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The main road from Tel Aviv to the Jordan Valley is being broadened daily into a trunk road through the West Bank. Israel's West Bank civil administration has just rejected Palestinian opposition to a plan to quintuple the size of Ma'aleh Adumim, a Jewish settlement just to the east of Jerusalem, to make it slightly larger in area than Tel Aviv.

The State Department also lamented the lack of progress on providing Gaza, the seat of the mini-state of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, with an airport, seaport and industrial park. The Israelis say the Palestinians have not done all they could to provide security for Israel. Mr Rubin said Israel was not holding talks with Syria or Lebanon and there was growing Middle East "disillusionment" about what peace would bring.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are now waiting to see if there will be a confrontation between Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and US President Bill Clinton. The US could unveil its own peace proposals or denounce Mr Netanyahu's intransigence. The latter appears to think that he can face down anything Mr Clinton throws at him.

Mr Netanyahu is in a stronger political position domestically than he was last year, with less division within his cabinet and an ineffective Labour opposition. Mr Arafat wants to make friends in Washington, cultivate the European Union and seek greater support from the Arab states; so far this has produced few dividends.

Also favouring Mr Netanyahu is the lack of violence. Since he opened a tunnel in Jerusalem under the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem in 1996, which produced widespread fighting and more than 60 dead, fewer Israelis and Palestinians are dying than when enthusiasm for Oslo was at its height. Many Israeli voters are concluding that Mr Netanyahu can deliver the goods in a way that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, his Labour predecessors, did not.

This may not last. On Sunday a large car bomb blew up in Ramallah, a Palestinian enclave north of Jerusalem, killing the driver who was probably preparing to attack an Israeli target. This may have been in retaliation for the three Palestinians shot dead earlier last month at a checkpoint outside Hebron.

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