This week's burst of Mideast diplomacy, which included the first face-to-face meetings between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in almost a year and an impromptu Oval Office summit, reflected a shift in tactics in the U.S. effort to break the 18-month deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
With the May 4, 1999, deadline for the end of the Oslo process looming, the Clinton administration is now pushing hard for incremental agreements intended to buy more time for the faltering negotiations to get back on track.
Despite vigorous spin over the weekend by Israeli officials, who insisted that an agreement could be only days away, administration officials warned against expecting any breakthroughs. Their caution seemed vindicated after the three leaders faced reporters on Monday and used a formulation that has become almost routine in the deadlocked talks.
"I believe that we all agreed that we have made progress on the path to peace," Clinton told reporters after the one-hour meeting. "But there is still a substantial amount of work to be done until a comprehensive agreement can be reached."
Still, the administration is convinced that at least a partial deal can be concluded in the next few weeks. Clinton announced that he is sending Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and special envoy Dennis Ross to the region next week to continue the discussions, and said that Netanyahu and Arafat have been invited to resume their direct negotiations in Washington in mid October.
Israel agreed to the 13-percent West Bank redeployment first suggested by the administration in January, with 3 percent designated a nature preserve under Israeli security control. But according to early reports, there were no detailed agreements on a settlements freeze or on exactly what steps the Palestinians would have to take to meet Israeli security concerns.
The shift in administration tactics centered on working to seal agreements on several interim issues, not on the sweeping package originally conceived as the last step before final-status negotiations.
At the same time, there was a strong emphasis on convincing Arafat to back away from what the administration regards as inflammatory threats to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in eight months.
That part of the strategy was only partially successful. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, Arafat stepped back from directly threatening a unilateral declaration. But the Palestinian leader urged delegates to "stand by our people, especially as the five-year transitional period provided for in the Palestinian-Israel agreements ends on May 4, 1999."
The Palestinian people, he said, "await the establishment of their independent state. This independent Palestinian state must be established as the embodiment of the right of our people to self-determination."
Underlying the changing U.S. policy is the growing belief that time is running out for the sagging peace process.
"Going for an all-out agreement clearly wasn't working, so they've switched to a kind of incrementalism," said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University and a leading Mideast analyst. "They're scrambling to get as much as they can get in advance of the May 4 deadline; what's also clear is that they are expecting less than they were a month ago."
Domestic politics, he said, contributed to the administration's tactical shift.
"It's vital for the administration to play down the impasse at this point because the last thing they need is to confirm Republican charges that Monica Lewinsky is dictating American foreign policy," he said. "Clinton can't afford to be seen failing, so they'll work on smaller pieces and try to get agreements that will at least create the impression of progress."
Officials here see no alternative to the Oslo framework, but concede that the May deadline for the completion of the final-status talks -- which will include the most contentious issues of all, including Jerusalem, water resources and the status of Palestinian refugees -- will not be met even if a full or partial redeployment agreement can be concluded in the next few weeks.
Now, U.S. strategy is essentially an exercise in buying time, said Joel Singer, one of the architects of the original Oslo agreement, since there is little expectation the original deadline can be met.
The goal of the negotiations is now "to find a way to pass this explosive date without an explosion, without one party feeling it has been deceived -- be it Israel or the Palestinian side. The two sides must find a way to allow more time."
"The policy now is simply to produce an agreement," said Douglas Feith, a National Security Council staffer during the Reagan administration. "They'd be happy if the Israelis caved in -- or if the Palestinians caved. They have no strategy beyond 'let's have a signing ceremony on the White House lawn.'"
This week's frantic efforts to generate at least a partial agreement, he said, reflect an administration emphasis on the process itself, not on an analysis of U.S. interests in the region.
"That strategy doesn't resolve anything; it doesn't put Israel on a new course. If that's the strategy, the problem is that Labor could come back in and pick up where they left off," Feith said.
That appears to be exactly what the Clinton administration is hoping for.
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