US faces long haul to peace in Middle East

Aftermath of Qana massacre: The Israeli attack has undermined Clinton's initiative at Sharm el-Sheikh to tackle `terrorism'

A cruel American cartoon shows two ageing US diplomats sitting on a park bench in Washington, studying a newspaper filled with news of the war in Lebanon. One of the State Department veterans shakes his head sadly and says: "It wouldn't have happened if Warren Christopher was alive."

Mr Christopher, the US Secretary of State, may prove the cynics wrong in the next few days by winning a ceasefire in Lebanon, but it is an uphill job. "We think we have a chance of putting a deal together this week," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman in Damascus yesterday, as Mr Christopher met President Hafez al-Assad. "Success is not assured. We'll stay as long as it is useful."

It is Mr Christopher's 19th time in Syria since he took office and it is by far his most important visit. There is more at stake here than an end to the fighting in Lebanon. In under two weeks Israel's Operation Grapes of Wrath, backed by the US until the Qana massacre, has put at risk the main American policy aims in the Middle East.

And it all happened so quickly. Only last month the US seemed to be at the peak of its influence in the region. In the wake of the suicide bombs in Israel in March President Bill Clinton assembled 27 world leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, including leaders from the Arab world, to attend a conference to show their solidarity with Israel. Few would have attended without US prompting.

All this is at risk because of Grapes of Wrath and the rain of explosives on south Lebanon. Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, at a rancorous meeting with Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, told him: "Your attacks in Lebanon are without proportion to Hizbollah activity and, in the end, you have hardly killed any Hizbollah members, but have killed hundreds of civilians. If you sought to convene the Sharm el-Sheikh conference today, the heads of state would not come."

The damage to US policy is even deeper than that. Grapes of Wrath has poisoned the political atmosphere in the Middle East as a whole. Initial American endorsement of the operation is damaging the "peace process" by which hostility between Israel and the Arabs would be defused in a Middle East which is largely under the hegemony of the US since the end of the Gulf war in 1991.

Syria and its ally Iran did not go to Sharm el-Sheikh but they appeared isolated in their opposition. No longer. The Syrian newspapers yesterday showed President Assad meeting five foreign ministers in one day. Iran also showed signs of breaking out of the isolation which the US is trying to impose on it. Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian Foreign Minister, held talks in Damascus with Mr Primakov and Herve de Charette, the French Foreign Minister.

Worse, from the US point of view, none of this is helping Mr Peres win the election on 29 May - a central aim of President Clinton. Sharm el- Sheikh was aimed at fostering the political survival of Mr Peres after the suicide bombs. But the latest polls show that Grapes of Wrath is not helping the prime minister. His lead over Binyamin Netanyahu, his rival for the prime minister's office, is only 5 per cent. Many Israeli-Arabs, one of Labour's key constituencies, say they will abstain.

In a sense Mr Clinton gave a warning at Sharm el-Sheikh about what was going to happen. He pledged support for Israel in combating the "terrorists" of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are Palestinian movements which carried out the suicide bomb attacks in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. But Hizbollah is purely Lebanese. It carried out some successful ambushes in the last month and has killed 77 Israeli soldiers in the last three years. Israeli casualties had not increased markedly in recent months.

In the wake of Sharm el-Sheikh, Israel and the US appeared intent on teaching Syria a lesson. Viewed from Damascus, Operation Grapes of Wrath may appear to be the latest in a series of hostile moves by Washington and Tel Aviv. In the last six months Jordan has turned against its old friends in Iraq and has successfully cultivated Israel and the US. Equally menacing for Syria is the military agreement signed by Israel with Turkey, allowing Israeli aircraft to train in Turkish airspace.

Fearing encirclement by allies of Israel and the US, Syria is unlikely to stand down the 3,000 guerrillas of Hizbollah in south Lebanon. The ability to end the skirmishing in the Israeli occupation is a card so valuable that Damascus will cash it in as part of a final peace agreement with Israel.

Despite the massive destruction inflicted by Grapes of Wrath, Israeli military intelligence admits that the guerrillas have suffered little, and were never likely to do so unless Israel had launched a ground offensive.

It may be that Sharm el-Sheikh created a lethal hubris in Israel and the US. Only this explains why they re-entered the Lebanese political swamp on 11 April, despite their experiences in the 1980s. When Mr Christopher arrived in Damascus on Saturday he spoke of a quick ceasefire. It has not happened. The problem is that the campaign launched by Mr Peres has already failed. The Katyusha rockets that he promised to stop are still falling. But he dare not admit failure because this might lose him the election.

Only the US can now save Mr Peres. Iran, Syria and Hizbollah know that every day Grapes of Wrath continues it damages Israel and the US more than them. They also have cards still to play. Hizbollah has not yet made ground attacks which will cause casualties among Israeli forces. Another Qana massacre is possible. Underestimating the political effect of Grapes of Wrath may turn out to be the worst miscalculation by the US in the Middle East since the American ambassador to Iraq went on holiday a few days before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

The EU endorsement

Luxembourg (AP) - The European Union yesterday endorsed both the French and US plans to end fighting between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon.

"The aim of these efforts must be to obtain, with an immediate halt to hostilities and acts of violence, the elaboration of a lasting agreement between" Israel and the Hizbollah guerrillas, EU ministers said.

They also stuck by their "critical dialogue" with Iran, ignoring US appeals to isolate Tehran.

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