US starts `last-chance' Mid-East peace drive

Washington may have left it too late to wrest the initiative from the bombers, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
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The Independent Online
"The main problem in the Middle East is that there is a weak US administration," says the Lebanese commentator Khairallah Khairallah in the Arabic daily al-Hayat. It is all very different from the self-congratulatory mood on the White House lawn 18 months ago, when President Bill Clinton presided over the signing of an agreement between Israel and the PLO.

In the aftermath of the Beit Lid bomb, talks on an Israeli troop withdrawal, Palestinian elections and a prisoner release are deep-frozen. The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, lacks the political strength at home to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which would be the price of a peace treaty with Syria. At the weekend he said he was prepared only to test the waters by pulling back from a small piece of Syrian territory.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, visits the Middle East this week in what is seen as the last chance to revive negotiations. But the Arab states think Mr Clinton is incapable of saying "no" to Israel on the expansion of settlements or any other issue. The US can no longer play the moderating role it did in 1991-92, during and after the Madrid conference, when it compelled the government of Yitzhak Shamir to start talks with the Palestinians.

After the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993, Mr Clinton was quick to claim credit, though in practice Oslo was largely the fruit of initiatives by the previous administration. Ever since, the aim of Mr Clinton's foreign policy in the Middle East has been to do no worse than his Republican predecessors. Arguing that the key to peace is to keep Mr Rabin in power, the administration failed to push last year for the implementation of the second stage of the Oslo agreement - troop redeployment out of West Bank towns, elections and prisoner releases.

Palestinians began to believe they had fallen into a trap. Hamas and Islamic Jihad were marginalised by the Oslo and Washington accords but failure to implement them in 1994 allowed Islamic militancy to re-emerge. Some Israeli politicians say the turning point was Mr Rabin's failure to act against the Israeli settlers in Hebron after the slaughter of 29 worshippers in the mosque a year ago.

In April last year bombs on buses at Afulah and Haderah killed 13 people and started a vicious cycle which continues: Mr Rabin refuses to carry out the Oslo accords, which impels the majority of Palestinians to support the bomb attacks. By pulling out of Gaza and Jericho the Israeli government did enough to weaken its military position but not enough to earn Palestinian gratitude. Israeli voters were promised that Oslo meant security and found that they were deeply insecure.

Mr Rabin may have lost his chance for ever. His fall in popularity is marked by bomb explosions, notably one in the heart of Tel Aviv in October and at Beit Lid in January. The present respite appears to be tactical. Yasser Arafat, PLO chairman, has put a lot of effort into preventing fresh bomb attacks but he has not tried to break up the military organisations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The US has been determined to maintain some form of contact between Mr Rabin, Mr Arafat and other Arab leaders. But meetings without result have served to demonstrate impotence. Peaceful resolution of differences between Israel and Palestinians always depended on a lot of US involvement. So long as the Palestinians believed they could play for US support to even the balance with the Israelis, there was every reason for them to avert violence. By taking a less central role, the US surrendered the political initiative to the bombers and Mr Christopher may find it is too late to reclaim it.