It is clear to regional and international powers involved in peacemaking in the Middle East that the peace process has long been in the throes of a fatal crisis and is now verging on total collapse.
Prior to the defeat of the Labor party in the Israeli elections of 1996, the peace process was completely paralyzed on the Syrian-Israeli and the Lebanese-Israeli tracks. With the Likud victory in these elections, this paralysis subsequently spread to the Palestinian-Israeli track. There was a shift in Israeli policy which was not to the liking of the United States. But instead of circumspection at the White House, the State Department and the lobbies of the American Congress, the head of the Israeli government, Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu, enjoyed a warm reception by Congress and got a standing ovation for his speech. He raised the banner of "Security for peace" instead of the concept of "Land for peace" which the United Nations and the American administration had adopted and on which the whole peace process was predicated.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted that 1997 was a bad year for the peace process, without attributing responsibility for the failure. She failed to proffer her own vision of mechanisms that would extricate the peace process from its predicament. Mr. Yasser Arafat concurred with her negative assessment of the situation, but laid the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the Likud government. According to him, rescuing the peace process depended on Mr. Netanyahu taking concrete steps towards the implementation of the agreements that had been signed between Palestinians and Israelis. Arafat stressed the implementation of the Hebron Protocol and its attachments - the Mutual Undertakings - related to the stages of withdrawal, the three redeployments (two of which have long been overdue), the operation of the airport at Dahaniyah, the completion of the construction of the Gaza port and the release of prisoners. The Likud government failed to honor its commitment to the agreements it signed, even if witnessed by President Clinton, proof of the weakness of the Americans as patrons of the peace process.
The activities in recent months of the untiring U.s. Special Middle East Coordinator, Dennis Ross, and Mrs. Albright's meetings with the Palestinians and the Israelis have remained largely fruitless. The talks have but underscored the fact that, instead of giving new impetus to the peace process, the Hebron agreement became a negative factor, casting doubt about the very future of the negotiations. Mrs. Albright's implicit admission of these painful facts was probably instrumental in her suspending her visits to the region at the beginning of 1998.
As for Netanyahu, he exploited Albright's dilly-dallying and issued orders for bulldozers to proceed to Jabal Abu Ghneim/Har Homa for the construction of a settlement there. Negotiations stopped and the peace process on the Palestinian-Israeli track was frozen. Instead of forcing Netanyahu to withdraw from Jabal Abu Ghneim/Har Homa, the American administration acted with leniency and did not even compel him to implement the first stage of pullback due during the first week of March 1997. He later evaded implementing the second stage of redeployment which had been slated for September 1997. Once again, he infringed on the American concept of peacemaking in the area and reversed the peace process.
At the time, declarations were made by the State Department pointing to disagreement with Netanyahu's position. Indeed, President Clinton gave public voice to his disconcertment with the Israeli government's position and there were even leaks by some American officials about the lack of chemistry between Netanyahu and Clinton. President Clinton declined to meet with Netanyahu during one of the latter's visits to the United States, yet the American administration did nothing to pressure Netanyahu to adjust to the American position. Instead, they called on the Arabs to be patient with Netanyahu, and to understand the difficulties he was facing on the domestic front. In fact, Dennis Ross later attempted to promote Netanyahu's policy rather than to abort it. He tried to convince the Palestinians to go to final-status negotiations before the completion of the interim stage. The proposal was firmly rejected by PA President Arafat, on the grounds that it conflicted with the letter and spirit of the peace process and the agreements signed between Palestinians and Israelis.
Objectively, no one can deny the great successes of American diplomacy in more than one part of the world during President Clinton's term: the former Soviet Union conceded defeat; the European countries that are members of the U.N., as well as Germany, Russia and Japan have been compelled to accept a marginalized role for themselves and for the U.N. They are pressed to accept the exclusive involvement of the United States in the Arab-Israeli conflict in accordance with its own global strategy. But, unfortunately, the important achievements of the American Administration following Oslo have evaporated, and I do not think it unfair to say that during the Clinton¬Christopher-Albright era the American administration was responsible for the loss of two precious years in the life of the Middle East peace process. As sponsor of the process, the U.S. had firmly rejected an equal sharing with other countries of the responsibility for its fate. Thus, it alone is responsible for the accumulation of negative developments in the region and for a loss of confidence by the Arab countries in the peace process and its future. U.S. inactivity has also been instrumental in nurturing the enemies of peace on both sides. Exploiting the deterioration in the peace process and the erosion in its benefits, they have entrenched themselves among both Palestinian and Israeli populations, without the need for direct coordination between them. It will be very difficult for the U.S. to recover from the loss of credibility vis-a-vis the people of the Middle East.
The American administration is fully aware that its role as patron of the peace process has become more complicated in the wake of the political crisis created by the resignation of David Levy, the Israeli foreign minister. Irrespective of the motives, personal and partisan, that led Levy to resign or of Netanyahu's motives in letting his foreign minister resign, it is clear that Netanyahu's government has shifted towards greater extremism. Its progress towards peace with the Palestinians has become more constrained than ever by the radical elements within the Likud party, the religious camp and in the Israeli street. The capacity of its leader - assuming he is convinced ¬to adapt to American wishes regarding the implementation of the interim stage of the peace process has grown weaker. His major preoccupation at the moment is to safeguard the ruling coalition within his government, to counter the opposition, and to stay in power as long as possible. This he can achieve only if he accedes to the demands of the settlers and extremist elements that call for no withdrawal from "the God-given Holy Land" and by land confiscation and settlement expansion.

The U.S. as Patron of the Peace Process

The U.S. has a very narrow definition of its role as patron of the peace process, which it has basically confined to procedural rather than substantive matters. The impression is that it lacks a clear political vision. This has affected its international standing, has undermined its capacity to influence the conflicting parties in the area and has cost the peace process its dynamics. Clearly, to extract the peace process from the quagmire it is in, the Clinton Administration must recognize that the achievement of peace and stability in the area is in the interest of America and the international community, no less than it is an Arab or Israeli interest. Experience shows that all previous American administrations, when they felt the vital interests of the U.S. threatened, took a firm stand regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and were able to come up with their own recommendations and to impose their own positions on the conflicting parties. This is what happened in 1956-57 when the U.S. forced Ben-Gurion to withdraw his troops from Sinai and the Gaza Strip, and after the October 1973 war when Kissinger succeeded in making Israel withdraw from important areas of Arab lands. The same thing occurred in 1982 when Reagan pressured Begin into a swift troop withdrawal from Beirut, and later in 1991 when Bush talked Shamir into not retaliating against Iraq for the missiles that fell on Israel during the Gulf War. The coming stages in the peace process do not allow for a weak and hesitant American role.
To break the stalemate, Mrs. Albright will have to cease procrastination and to reassume the initiative, shifting from "managing" the crisis of the Arab-Israeli conflict to solving it. She will have to present defined proposals and practical and tangible solutions. This will convince the parties of the advantages of pursuing the peace process, and of the price to be paid should they revert to the pre-negotiations stage.
Replacing the present U.S. Special Coordinator, Dennis Ross, might be of help, especially since he bears a big share in the deterioration of the American role in the peace process. In fact, Israelis and Palestinians - the two parties in the conflict - have come to act according to a preconceived notion of his positions and a thorough knowledge of the limits of his tactics and maneuvers, and it is no secret that the Palestinian side has ceased to see any practical use to his visits. It is imperative that the State Department recognize the great importance of the element of time in the negotiations and that it impose a scrupulous respect of the timetables as determined by the agreements and to which Ross has paid scant attention.
If, during the rule of the Labor party, Palestinians and Israelis did not feel a need for a decisive U.S. role in the negotiations, during the Likud rule, however, 18 months of faltering negotiations underscore the need for a third party. This means that the American administration should change its concept of the role of sponsorship and should participate as a full partner along the lines of what happened during the Egyptian-Israeli talks before and after the signing of the Camp David Accords. This role should not be confined to matters of security only, as is the case now, but should extend to all the issues presented at the negotiating table.
Mrs. Albright has talked more than once about the possibility of a joint American-European initiative which, in my opinion, is largely overdue. Allowing its European allies to act according to their own convictions could contribute towards saving the peace process and providing the driving force to surmount the huge obstacles that lie ahead.
Also, it would be in the interest of the American administration not to bow to Netanyahu's inflexibility regarding an Egyptian role in the negotiations. Since Sadat's rule and up to this day, the facts show that the Egyptian role has been consistently positive, aimed at finding radical, just and lasting solutions to the problems of the conflict. Alienating or antagonizing Egyptian involvement, as Netanyahu is doing at the moment, is detrimental to the peace process.

The U.S. an Unbiased Mediator?

If American bias in favor of Israel can be accepted by certain segments of the Palestinian people who try to understand its motives and background, the realities of six years of peacemaking in the area have proven that such partiality can be harmful when it oversteps its limits. Excessive pampering of the Israeli extremists and a humiliation of the Palestinians can only encourage Netanyahu to make light of the role of the American patron as well as of other international powers, of the Palestinian partnership and of all agreements signed with them. By the same token, a more impartial United States can put a check to the rise of extremism inside Israeli society or in the region as a whole.
The call for the American administration to reduce its pro-Israeli bias does not necessarily mean a confrontation with Netanyahu and his government. If, for reasons of its own, the Clinton Administration is reluctant to engage in a head-on confrontation with the Likud government, it can allow U.N. institutions to playa role in the peace process and facilitate their task in promoting stability in the region, including the possibility of dispatching peace-keeping forces along the borders that will be separating the State of Israel and the territories of the future Palestinian state.
At the end of the day, the U.S. remains the only country that can impact on the decisions taken by the Israeli government because of the nature of its historic relations with Israel - government, people and parties. The Israeli street is quite sensitive to this relationship and to the American stands and interests. All Israeli governments and parties have generally tried to avoid confrontation with the White House. The problem lies not in the capacity of the American administration to influence Netanyahu's position, but in the extent to which the White House is willing to use its mechanisms of pressure. When the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, or the Libyan president, Muammar Qaddafi, rebelled against the U.S., we all saw the American response. Netanyahu rebelled against American policy, but nothing happened to convince the Arab nations of the evenhandedness of American policy. There were many occasions on which the American administration witnessed Netanyahu's subterfuge and his attempts to abort American diplomacy and to undermine its credibility. Nonetheless, the Clinton Administration chose to turn a blind eye and allowed the Israeli government to proceed with bolstering its military superiority and its settlement activity, instead of engaging in a serious search for a lasting peace with the Arabs and the Palestinians.
Mrs. Albright has already lost a whole year [1997] failing to make any efforts towards peacemaking in this troubled part of the world. She has visited a few of the countries in the area only once. Will she change her style in 1998 and assume her responsibilities more efficiently? Or will she find herself compelled to visit the area, but this time to put out the conflagrations, large and small, that will have erupted in more than one comer of this region because of an American policy of deferring vital decisions?