Washington loses its grip on peace process

In the last week two well-known Americans have visited Jerusalem: Dennis Ross, the US coordinator for the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and Judge Ito, who presided over the first OJ Simpson trial. Mr Ross's visit was brief but heavily publicised. Judge Ito's presence might not have been known at all if an alert photographer had not spotted his familiar face as he entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In recent months the US effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has looked increasingly like the OJ Simpson trial. Despite the immense length of the proceedings in both cases, Mr Ross looks no more likely to produce a satisfactory result than Judge Ito.

The US peace envoy and the Californian judge share a worrying tendency to allow events, over which they are meant to exercise authority, to swing out of control. In one respect Mr Ross has the advantage. The OJ Simpson case is over, while the Oslo peace accords have yet to be nailed in their coffin.

Just how much life is left in the peace process may become clearer when Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, visits Washington to see President Bill Clinton next Monday. On the face of it the prospects are not good. Shai Bazak, the Prime Minister's spokesman, said yesterday that Israel wants "first of all and as a first condition, the cessation of Palestinian terrorism - and only then the continuation of diplomatic negotiations". Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, says: "The Israeli settlement policy puts the entire peace process in real danger."

President Clinton is close to launching a fresh peace initiative. This would involve speeding up the Oslo process, moving to discussion of the final status of issues like Jerusalem, boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements and relations with foreign states. Something like this approach has already been suggested by Mr Netanyahu.

Palestinians have two objections to this. They say Israel is trying to avoid implementing the present interim phase of the peace process, signed by the previous Israeli government in 1995, which should mean an end to Israeli occupation of most of the West Bank and Gaza. Secondly, by building the largest Israeli settlement in Jerusalem since 1980 at Har Homa, Mr Arafat says Mr Netanyahu is preempting final status talks on two of the most divisive issues: Jerusalem and Israeli settlements.

President Clinton will try to reassure the Palestinians that the three phase Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will continue. But they will have doubts, particularly about Mr Ross. It was he who mediated the Hebron agreement in January which left the size of Israeli withdrawals on the West Bank to be decided by Israel. Mr Netanyahu now speaks of returning only half the West Bank.

Furthermore the US has twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions condemning the construction of Har Homa. This was the critical support which Mr Netanyahu needed.

Marwan Barghouti, general secretary of Fatah, the main Palestinian political movement, said at the weekend: "From the US I don't expect anything. They are with the Israelis."

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