WASHINGTON -- Caught unprepared for the ferocity of bombing and shelling in southern Lebanon, the Clinton administration scrambled yesterday to rescue 20 months of Middle East diplomacy and its best chance for a major foreign policy achievement this year.
President Clinton directed Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to cut short a trip to Asia to return to Washington for consultations on the Middle East, the United States implored Israel to show restraint and Syria to exert control over Iranian-backed guerrillas who provoked Israel's fire.
Mr. Clinton, signaling a gentle public approach to Syria, praised Damascus yesterday for showing "commendable restraint." Privately, the United States has been "direct and pointed" in talks with Syrians, a senior official said, believing Syria has considerable influence over the guerrillas.
The administration reserved harsh words for Iran and its Lebanese proxies, accusing the Tehran regime of fomenting south Lebanon violence against Israel so as to derail the Middle East peace process.
Edward Djerejian, a senior U.S. Mideast official, vowed a determined effort to mobilize international pressure that would force a change in Iran's "behavior."
While the administration had expected Israel to retaliate for mounting rocket attacks on its self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon and its settlements in northern Israel, the United States was caught off-guard by the scale of the attack and of the counterattacks by the guerrillas, a senior official said.
U.S. officials said Israel did not notify the United States in advance of its military strikes, thus avoiding putting the Clinton administration in the uncomfortable position of acquiescing in the attack.
Israeli-Palestinian talks have been stalled over control of East Jerusalem and West Bank territory. Israeli-Syrian talks were at an impasse over the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the quality of peace Syria offered.
The talks are to resume probably in September, officials say, although no date has been set. The administration hopes to have agreements at least on the framework of future talks by year's end.
In talks between Israel and Palestinians, the administration was pushing the Israeli-backed idea of "early empowerment," whereby the Palestinians would quickly assume responsibility for certain governmental functions. It also is exploring a confederation between Jordan and Palestinians.
The White House gave no indication yesterday that Mr. Christopher's Mideast trip would be scuttled. But officials voiced concern that the secretary could become totally caught up in negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and the Lebanon-based guerrillas and not be able to move negotiations forward at all.
Following Israel's expulsion of about 400 Palestinians accused of terrorist links in December, the administration spent months just getting the various parties back to the peace table.
As with previous violent outbreaks, this week's attack is bound to heighten bitterness among Lebanese civilians and their struggling government.
"The impacts are long-term," said James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute. "You have a constituency [created by] freshly killed people and their families."
The United States also has to contend with mounting disillusionment with the West throughout the Muslim world over its failure to rescue largely Muslim Bosnia from Christian Serb aggression.
By avoiding direct criticism of Israel, Syria or Lebanon, the administration tried to use the commitment to the peace process demonstrated by all three to get them to end the south Lebanon strife, while isolating Iran and other opponents of the process.
But the air and rocket battles pose a severe test of the Clinton administration's partnership with the Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin, which contrasts with the strained U.S.-Israeli relations during administrations of President Bush and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
And the mild posture toward Syria glosses over what Israelis and some U.S. analysts see as a dual role played by its president, Hafez el Assad: While participating in the peace process, he is patronizing terrorist elements, such as Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, pTC that are dedicated to destroying it.
"The Syrians are largely to blame for the conflict in Lebanon," said Robert Satloff, director of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"They're not to be commended for restraint when they're the source of the conflict."
The new administration attack on Iran singles out a Middle East power that is totally outside the peace process.
"The fighting in southern Lebanon today has been a deliberate provocation by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization which receives extensive support from Iran," Mr. Djerejian told Congress.