Can the White House save the peace process from destruction

Clinton boxed in over summit expectations
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The Clinton administration last night was under few illusions that the talks here tomorrow to be attended by the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, can at best do more than secure a truce to halt the violence that threatens to destroy what is left of the Middle East peace process.

Announcing his initiative, which King Hussein of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have also been invited to join, President Bill Clinton said he was prepared to do "everything in my power" to restore calm, and a climate in which real negotiations could take place. The fighting and loss of life of the last few days had been "a terrible development" for the Palestinian and Israeli people alike.

But even after Mr Clinton spoke, both the format and duration of the discussions was unclear. Scheduled to start tomorrow, they would last "a day or two", according to the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. King Hussein will attend, but the participation of President Mubarak - desperately sought by Mr Arafat - was uncertain. White House officials said Mr Clinton would speak by phone with the Palestinian leader last night, to dispel his concerns.

Expectations, however, are being kept low, not just to protect Mr Clinton from a perceived foreign policy failure just five weeks before the US election, but out of a recognition of just how deep is the crisis ignited by the re-opening of the archaeological tunnel near the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

"This is an emergency," Mr Christopher said yesterday, warning that the situation was more perilous than at any time since the "peace process" began in 1991. Not much should be expected from the Washington meetings: "There are strains, they are pretty raw." At best, US officials say, the meeting will halt the downward spiral into violence. Interviewed on ABC television after again refusing to close the tunnel, Mr Netanyahu was as unyielding as ever, attacking what he termed the "tendentious" report that introduced the programme, and insisting that the Palestinian leadership had used the incident for "religious incitement". The tunnel had nothing to do with the current violence, it was "a complete fabrication ... that doesn't merit serious discussion". Mr Netanyahu promised to come to Washington "without pre-conditions". But he gave not the slightest hint of any concession he was ready to make.

Mr Clinton's announcement was the first diplomatic breakthrough of a gruelling and thankless week for US diplomacy. For days the administration has been working to engineer a summit, biting its lip to avoid overt criticism of Mr Netanyahu while privately imploring the Israeli authorities to close the tunnel - but hitherto to no avail. On the first point at least, things have changed, thanks to a night of phone calls between Mr Christopher and US officials and Mr Netanyahu, Mr Arafat and other participants in the crisis, and the realisation by all concerned that without action, events might spin totally out of control. How closely involved Mr Clinton will be in the talks remains to be seen, nor is it clear whether they will be held bilaterally, with the US as honest broker, or face-to-face between the protagonists.

But rarely has Washington's ability to influence events seemed smaller. The smiles at the two meetings this year between Mr Clinton and Mr Netanyahu have not hidden the gulf between them, in terms of both policy and trust. The US moved heaven and earth to secure the re-election of the defeated Labour leader, Shimon Peres, in last spring's election; not surprisingly Mr Netanyahu is not over-disposed to listen to the Americans now.

Mr Clinton's leverage will be lessened further by his unwillingness to do anything to upset American Jewish voters so close to the election. A sign of Washington's uncomfortable position was its abstention in Saturday's 14 to zero vote of the UN Security Council, urging both sides to "reverse all acts" that had contributed to the crisis.

At the very least the image of an American President as peace-maker will do Mr Clinton's prospects no harm. He will probably be seen by most Americans as having done his best in what even Mr Netanyahu yesterday acknowledged as one of the "most intractable problems of human history".

Letters, page 13