The Clinton administration is bringing a needed sense of urgency to Arab-Israeli peace talks, now reaching a make-or-break stage after so many, many false starts. Washington's definition of its "full partner" role becomes more intrusive by the day -- and rightly so. The constant in Mideast negotiations is that only the U.S. has the power and leverage to deal with both sides. What is changing, and changing radically, is the situation in which the protagonists find themselves.
For members of the Palestinian delegation, their very presence in Washington comes at great personal risk. Hard-line fundamentalist groups are in head-to-head confrontation with the Palestine Liberation Organization, once regarded by Israel as a nest for terrorists but now accepted, at least tacitly, as a negotiating partner. If Palestinian delegates cannot get tangible concessions in the current talks, their ability to carry on could be in doubt.
For Israel under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, this could be the moment to transfer wide self-governing authority to Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza under an arrangement whereby the final status of the occupied territories is to be settled within five years. The alternative would be continuation or intensification of internal strife.
For Syria, the breakup of the old Soviet Union has placed President Hafez al-Assad in a position where he is relying on the U.S. to help him regain possession of the Golan Heights lost in the 1967 war. The Israelis, however, are justifiably insisting that their part of the bargain must be full diplomatic relations with Syria, a peace treaty and an exchange of ambassadors on the Egyptian model.
What is striking about the objectives of all parties is not that they regard one another with suspicion or refuse a public handshake; rather, it is that the U.S. can readily accept the main objectives of all three parties, provided they make the requisite accommodations in return.
Anyone familiar with Mideast diplomacy knows many tense and frustrating moments lie ahead, but sooner rather than later agreements must be fashioned if the region is to be rescued from its cycles of violence, if Israel is to find security at last and if established Islamic governments are to be in a position to ward off the fundamentalist threat.
After a dangerous hiatus of four months, a new U.S. government has succeeded in getting all parties back in the room and has determined to play an active role -- introducing ideas and providing assessments on a daily basis. As long as this role does not erode the concept of direct talks, the new Democratic administration might be poised to bring about the most significant peace initiative since Jimmy Carter's Camp David accords.