Return to Oslo; Summit: Theatrics jump-start Mideast negotiations, determine Clinton's coming role.


ALTHOUGH the United States was not part of the Oslo negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, President Clinton dominates the commemoration.

This two-day memorial to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli peacemaker assassinated by an Israeli extremist four years ago, is theater.

But President Clinton's presence is serious business. His own place in history rests on the success of the ambitious timetable for peace that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak set for themselves.

Mr. Clinton is pushing for a substantive summit early next year. The issue to be decided now is the extent of his involvement then. Mr. Arafat craves it; Mr. Barak prefers Mr. Clinton at a distance.

The United States has always been Israel's ally when the issue is Israel's existence. On the most intractable issue now, the status of Jerusalem, Washington takes no position. But on two lesser, practical matters, United States policy -- if expressed -- is closer to the Palestinian view.

One of these is the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Washington quietly deplores them. A Clinton contribution to this discussion would strengthen Palestinian leverage in the compromise to be reached.

The other issue is the extent of separation between a Palestinian state and Israel. Washington leans toward the original vision of interdependence. So does Mr. Arafat, trying to find employment for his people. Mr. Barak, sensitive to anxieties over terrorism, wants stronger fences.

Mr. Arafat's hand is not strong. Mr. Clinton's influence could be useful to him or to an Israeli leader needing an excuse to make a concession.

The presence of Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Oslo is a distraction. But Russia's imprimatur on peace is essential.

Real negotiations between the two sides start Nov. 8 in Ramallah on the West Bank. The goal is a framework by February and a settlement by September.

As long as Oslo summiteers focus on the common goal, this summit is not adversarial but cooperative. That is the best way to honor the memory of Yitzhak Rabin.

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