Are top actors in Mideast drama playing for peace

The last few weeks have been tough on administration diplomats as some of their deepest fears for the fragile Mideast peace process have become reality. At the top of the worry list is the sudden acceleration of the Battle for Jerusalem: the hair-trigger bomb right in the middle of the negotiations.

Last week's terror attack in Tel Aviv and the near-complete breakdown in communications between Israeli and Palestinian leaders sparked frantic damage-control efforts in Washington aimed at keeping the peace process from unraveling.

But the real dilemma for policy-makers goes deeper than crisis management: Who, exactly, is Benjamin Netanyahu, and what is his vision for Israel? Does he have a peace plan, or is his policy strictly a matter of political action and reaction?

The problem is even more daunting when it comes to the Palestinian leadership. Is Yasser Arafat the terrorist-turned-statesman he claims to be or is his apparent conversion a matter of expedience, as his actions over the past two weeks suggest?

A lack of clarity over where these leaders plan to take the peace process puzzles American officials who are trying to serve as facilitators and honest brokers.

From the time of his election almost a year ago, Netanyahu was difficult to read.

He was educated in this country; many saw him as a kind of American political clone: pragmatic, not ideological, despite his strident campaign rhetoric.

Generally, the administration was willing to believe Netanyahu meant it when he said he wanted to continue the peace process, but with more security.

Since his election, the prime minister has zigged and zagged in ways that baffle Washington.

First he refused to meet with Arafat, then changed his mind; his decision to open the archaeological tunnel in September, sparking days of Palestinian riots, was seen as an unnecessary provocation, although Arafat's incitement of violence in response got Bibi off the hook.

In January, Netanyahu signed the much-delayed Hebron agreement and signaled what many saw as a new commitment to the Oslo process.

But once again, his real intentions were a blur. Was Hebron the beginning of the home stretch, as administration officials hoped, or the end? The West Bank redeployment announced two weeks ago, which was to include only 2 percent of the territory under exclusive Israeli control, was an ambiguous signal.

And then there was Har Homa. Netanyahu insisted that the issue was purely a question of Israel's right to build in its own capital, but every Mideast observer understood there was more to it than that: at least, a desire to draw a dramatic line in the sand on negotiations about Jerusalem, at most an attempt to alter the city's demographics to tilt the final-status negotiations.

Unilateral action on Jerusalem may be acceptable to most Israelis and many American Jews, but "it's hard to reconcile that with Netanyahu's frequently repeated desire to move the peace process forward — at least this peace process," said a top pro-Israel activist here.

Last week, Netanyahu proposed accelerating the "final-status" talks that will cover Jerusalem and other big issues, like refugees and water resources.

Was that a bold plan to move negotiations beyond the faltering gradualism of Oslo? Or was it a ploy to rush the collapse of the peace process, but in a way that will pin the blame on the Palestinians? The signs are confusing.

Signals from Arafat are even harder to read.

The PLO leader should have won an Oscar after his recent visit to Washington, where he acted out the role of intelligent statesman in a way that was quickly contradicted by his behavior once he left town.

The same Arafat who once promised peace while calling for a Jihad against Israel did it again — trying to solve the Har Homa problem through diplomatic channels, albeit ones that incensed the Israelis, but also loosening controls on Hamas.

Despite this week's strange transatlantic debate over whether Arafat had given Hamas the green light, Friday's bombing was clearly related to the Palestinian leader's almost reflexive use of the threat of terror every time he is frustrated by some Israeli move.

Arafat clearly wants the benefits of the Oslo process, but he has not convincingly demonstrated that he envisions a long-term solution involving Israel and a Palestinian entity living side by side in peace. Sometimes he seems to imply by his actions that he regards Oslo as a ruse, a way station in his quest for all of what his maps still show as a Palestinian state reaching to the sea.

The dilemma for U.S. policy-makers is how to play an effective mediating role when the primary actors' real intentions are so unclear.

Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made his intentions fairly obvious: Build up a structural foundation of peace and hope it will be strong enough to carry the negotiations.

There was a clear role for Washington: keeping both sides at the table during rough spots, offering incentives and rewards, providing compromise suggestions, preventing destructive U.N. and European meddling.

But what is the proper U.S. role when it is far from clear whether the top actors in this drama are committed to the fundamental precepts of the negotiations?

Netanyahu has not given Washington much to work with in the vision department, a complaint voiced privately by American diplomats. Arafat continues to send contradictory messages that damage his credibility and destroy what little trust remains among the Israeli people.