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Rabin could be asked to return a favor as Bush pursues peace in Middle East

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Having helped elect Yitzhak Rabin, President Bush looks to the Israeli prime minister this week to return the favor.

This is neither as crass nor as simple as it sounds. Mr. Bush's intent is not just to win back the 30 percent of Jewish voters who supported him in 1988. He needs every vote, but Mr. Rabin couldn't deliver them even if he wanted to.

Rather, in restoring a relationship of mutual trust with Israel, Mr. Bush aims to give the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace process unstoppable momentum, enough to produce tangible progress before the U.S. election.

Such progress could bring broader voter appeal by underscoring Mr. Bush's ability to foster dramatic change in world affairs and showing a lasting achievement from diplomacy surrounding the Persian Gulf crisis.

Mr. Bush didn't defeat former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir; election polling showed that U.S.-Israeli relations, which Mr. Rabin vowed to improve, were not decisive.

But Mr. Bush's policies played into key issues that helped decide the Israeli election. Chief of these was his rejection of Israel's bid for $10 billion in loan guarantees at a time when Israelis were deeply dissatisfied with their moribund economy and its inability to absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants.

In addition, the Bush-Shamir rift over construction in the occupied territories, which the Bush administration called an obstacle to peace, helped highlight Mr. Rabin's intention to halt "political" settlements.

The invitation to Mr. Rabin to visit Mr. Bush's vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, tomorrow and Tuesday -- rather than the formal trappings of the White House -- marks a sea change in the president's personal relationship with the Israeli leadership.

It puts Mr. Rabin in a select fraternity of leaders with whom Mr. Bush confers frequently: John Major of Britain, Francois Mitterrand of France and Brian Mulroney of Canada.

For both Israel and its supporters in the United States, this is an important symbol. Mr. Bush "would like to show that his problem was with Shamir, not Israel," says Martin Indyk of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Jewish voters make up only a tiny fraction of the electorate. Only in a few states are their numbers large enough to matter, and even then only if the race is exceedingly close.

Winning them over may not be easy, in any case. Mr. Bush's bare-knuckle tactics in the loan-guarantee fight -- in particular, his assertion that he was up against "powerful political forces" in the pro-Israel lobby -- embittered even U.S. Jews opposed to Mr. Shamir's policies.

Of broader importance, for Jewish voters and the electorate as a whole, may be Mr. Bush's success in bringing greater stability to the Middle East.

It will help him to show "strong leadership in a changing world," says James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute. And for that, this week's meetings are a first step.

If the declared determination of both sides is any indication, the two leaders will probably reach an agreement on the loan guarantees that mostly satisfies the United States' concern about settlements.

This will remove a difficult barrier to improved U.S.-Israeli ties and improve prospects for the peace process, U.S. officials hope.

In recent years, the relationship has been "guarded at best, distrustful at worst . . . more negotiation than consultation," a senior U.S. official told reporters recently.

"I think we're on the verge of entering a new phase of bilateral relations -- and on the peace process -- where it becomes much more collaborative," the official said.

Mr. Rabin accepts the principle of territorial compromise, something Mr. Shamir rejected in his quest for a greater Israel.

As a result, says Mr. Indyk, the United States now "can get behind an Israeli initiative rather than having to pressure the Israeli government to move forward."

The Israelis already have lifted procedural obstacles by agreeing to move the talks back to Washington and hold them continuously.

When negotiations resume Aug. 24, Israel is expected to offer proposals for Palestinian autonomy that are more generous than Mr. Shamir's. Israelis also are likely to drop their boycott of multilateral talks on refugees and economic development that include Palestinians from outside the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Rabin's government also may ease restrictions against Israeli contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Whether these moves will lead to an autonomy deal before the election is uncertain. Mr. Indyk, who follows the peace process as closely as anyone outside government, is doubtful.

Even an interim agreement will be "very complex and difficult," involving land and water rights and security for Israeli settlers. "It's very hard to imagine these can be resolved," he says. The Palestinian delegation is also wrestling with internal and legitimacy problems that may make it incapable of responding seriously, he says.

The expected departure of Secretary of State James A. Baker III to run the White House and the Bush campaign would remove a key figure from the talks. Mr. Baker set the goal of an interim autonomy agreement by November, and he hates to fail.

U.S. officials also hope to achieve progress in so-far stalled talks between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon, and a lifting of the Arabs' secondary boycott of Israel.

Any progress will invite comparison between Mr. Bush's evenhandedness and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton's more pro-Israel stance. When loan guarantees were an issue during the primaries, Mr. Clinton backed them on humanitarian grounds and opposed the administration's use of them to squeeze political concessions out of Israel.

Indeed, fear of a Clinton tilt toward Israel is propelling Arabs forward in negotiations. They now seem willing to accept something less than a total freeze on Israeli settlements.

Mr. Clinton, who will meet with Mr. Rabin after the prime minister leaves Kennebunkport, plans to avoid any appearance of meddling.

Mr. Clinton, a senior adviser said, "will try to make clear there will be essential continuity in the peace process if there is a change in administrations."

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