As soon as Israel's new government is in place, the State Department plans to execute a Middle East plan that has been carefully crafted during the last two months of stalemate, since Israel began its election campaign. "Whether in the Balkans or the Middle East, America is on the side of those who are committed to peace, to uphold law and to judge others not on the basis of who they are but on how they act and whether they respect the rights of others," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said recently.
With this in mind, the next few months will see the latest in a series of opportunities in the peace process, U.S. officials say.
The administration's plans include:
*Immediate calls for full implementation of the Wye accord.
*Direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians without U.S. mediation.
*Opening final status talks with a goal of completing an agreement in one year.
*A three-way summit within six months hosted by President Clinton.
*A new push with Lebanon and Syria to start direct talks with Israel.
"There is no acceptable alternative to the pursuit of peace," said Dennis Ross, the chief U.S. Middle East negotiator.
The administration's push comes at a critical time for Middle East peace. The Palestinians and Israelis missed a deadline earlier this month to resolve the "final status" of the most sensitive issues, including Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, borders and Palestinian refugees. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat backed down from threats to unilaterally declare statehood only after the European Union promised to support such a declaration of a negotiated solution is not found.
With so much at stake, the United States is hoping for major breakthroughs in 2000.
"I'm hopeful both sides will engage on substance," said Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
The path to success lies in the pages of last October's Wye accord, U.S. officials said.
The agreement produced a 12-week timetable that married specific Palestinian steps with Israeli redeployment from the West Bank.
Implementation of the three-phase accord froze after the first four weeks.
"On the Palestinian side, we have seen serious efforts to prevent terror strikes, to renounce the Palestinian covenant and to avoid a unilateral declaration of statehood," Albright said recently.
"On the Israeli side, implementation has stalled," she said.
"Once the elections are over, we will urge without any further delay implementation of all outstanding Wye obligations by both sides," Albright said.
Observers expect Ross to travel to the region as early as next month to work toward this goal.
Under the Wye accord, the Palestinians agreed, among other things, to clamp down on terrorists, seize illegal weapons, move to stop incitement and amend the Palestinian Covenant, which called for Israel's destruction.
In exchange, Israel agreed, among other things, to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank in three stages and open a safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
According to U.S. officials, the White House wants to restart the timeline shortly after Israel forms a new government and its Cabinet is in place.
At the same time as the sides are implementing their past obligations, the United States wants the Israelis and Palestinians to engage in final status negotiations with the objective of completing them within one year, Albright said.
The talks are to deal with some of the most difficult outstanding issues in the peace process, including the final status of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and Palestinian refugees.
The combination of talks on both levels has U.S. officials optimistic that Palestinians and Israelis will begin negotiating with each other without U.S. mediation.
Since the 1997 Hebron Agreement, which transferred rule over the West Bank city to the Palestinians, the two sides have been unable to conduct serious policy talks without help from U.S. officials.
This has been a major source of concern for State Department officials, who have had to step in to resolve the most basic issues, officials said.
Ross recalled an incident last year when Israel and the Palestinian Authority immediately turned to him to resolve a "relatively minor" dispute over a road in Gaza.
Both sides urgently called Ross in Washington, who said he "had to step in."
"They should have been able to solve this themselves," said Ross, who negotiated a successful compromise.
But during stalemates, the sides "lose the capacity to resolve differences," he said.
But even if the two sides begin direct talks, U.S. officials have no illusions that the process will be easy.
"Negotiations will always take longer than most people think," even when the Israelis and Palestinians have the strongest relationship and sense of partnership, Ross said.
This is an "existential conflict" and both sides are not going to rush, he said, because there is no room for mistakes.
"They need to satisfy themselves that they are not giving up too much."
And that's why Indyk continues to repeat Clinton's promise made to Yitzhak Rabin before and during the signing of the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
"It's Israel that has to make the tangible concessions. And if the government of Israel takes risks for peace, our role is to minimize those risks," he said.
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