WASHINGTON -- Pulled once again into the role of Middle East mediator, the Clinton administration will try this week to draw concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on future construction in disputed areas and stronger action by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to prevent terrorism and violence.
The opening moves in the effort to calm the latest crisis will come today, when President Clinton meets with Netanyahu.
The prime minister's visit comes against the backdrop of mounting violence as Israelis and Palestinians stake out claims on one of the toughest issues preventing a lasting peace between them: Jerusalem.
"Clearly, we're in a very difficult situation," said a Clinton administration official. "We want to find a way to resume a credible negotiating process. First and foremost, that requires a secure environment. Both sides are going to have to take steps that demonstrate they're committed to a meaningful and credible process."
Officials in Washington doubt Netanyahu would halt construction of 6,500 Jewish housing units in a historically Arab section of East Jerusalem. The site is called Har Homa by Jews and Jabal Abu Ghneim by Palestinians.
The Israeli decision to break ground at the site has triggered daily clashes between Palestinians and Israeli authorities since construction began March 18.
To ease Arab anger, Clinton is expected to urge the Israelis to move ahead on plans for more housing for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The Clinton administration is also expected to try to persuade Netanyahu not to launch new construction projects for Jews, either in disputed areas of Jerusalem or in the West Bank.
The Clinton administration wants Israel to refrain from changing the situation on the ground in a way that pre-empts future talks over sovereignty.
"As in the past, we will look for ways to help the parties avoid taking steps that prejudice the outcome of negotiations that have not yet taken place," said a senior administration official.
Administration officials say Arafat can do much more to make his security forces cooperate with Israel in combating terrorism and violence, and want him to take specific steps to do so. "There needs to be 100 percent cooperation," a Clinton administration official said.
An Israeli official said yesterday that Netanyahu could never commit himself to any concession regarding Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its undivided capital. The prime minister will try to convince Clinton that Arafat has given a green light to violence and terrorism.
Before his meeting with Clinton, Netanyahu flew to Minnesota yesterday to meet with Jordan's King Hussein, who is convalescing at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester after prostate surgery.
Netanyahu was expected to gain at least a qualified endorsement from the king for his proposal for a quickened pace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The latest crisis comes two months after U.S. envoy Dennis Ross brokered an agreement over an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank city of Hebron.
The clashes are viewed as posing particular danger to the peace process begun in Oslo, Norway, because the crisis is accompanied by strong distrust and intransigent statements on both sides.
"We are very concerned at the significant and rapid decline in the confidence that the Palestinians and the Israeli government have in each other and, to some extent, in the process itself," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, said in a speech yesterday to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.
Palestinians' lack of trust in Netanyahu and his conservative Likud coalition is echoed in much of the Arab world. A week ago, Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, Egypt, announced plans to freeze relations with the Jewish state and reactivate an economic boycott of Israeli products.
According to the timetable set under the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel is supposed to be continuing a gradual withdrawal from the West Bank while beginning talks on "final status" issues. These last are the highly charged issues at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They include the future of Jerusalem, Israeli-Palestinian borders, the question of Palestinian statehood and the right of refugees to return to Palestinian territory.
Because each stage of Israeli withdrawal has been difficult, Netanyahu has proposed that final status talks be accelerated, with a deadline of six to nine months instead of the expected several years. The talks would be capped by a Camp David-style summit, like the one sponsored by former President Jimmy Carter that produced peace between Israel and Egypt.
Clinton wants to learn more about this idea from Netanyahu before committing himself, U.S. officials say.
But U.S. officials doubt they can get the necessary concessions from both sides that would make the high-risk venture fruitful. "We don't know how to get there from here," a U.S. official said.
Another added: "Without some climate of confidence, tough decisions on final status just can't be made."
Apart from Hussein, Arabs generally have opposed the idea, sharing Palestinians' fears that if talks fail, the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and from control over Palestinian affairs would be stopped in its tracks. This would freeze the peace process before Palestinians get anything close to their dream of a state, they say.
The current spate of diplomatic activity includes a higher Middle East profile by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, but top administration officials are not eager for her to plunge directly into the kind of Middle East shuttle diplomacy that so preoccupied her predecessor, Warren Christopher. A visit by the secretary of state is "a scarce diplomatic commodity. We want to use it for maximum impact," a senior official said.
In the backdrop is a brewing political crisis in Israel, with the Netanyahu government under investigation for political deals and growing talk of a Likud coalition with the opposition Labor Party.
Pub Date: 4/07/97