U.S. has everything to gain by decisive Mideast role

The international reaction to the situation after the horror of the Mahane Yehuda bombing was encouraging only to a limited degree.

The Israeli appeals for support, redress and remedy were addressed exclusively to Yasser Arafat. No exhortations, even those from Israel, have borne any other address. The implication is that Israelis are asking everything from Arafat and proposing nothing on their own account.

The idea that nothing already done could have been avoided and no Israeli abstentions, restraints or remedies are in reserve is unlikely to commend itself to any sector of Israeli or American opinion.

Since the Israeli media have been full of criticism of unilateral Israeli actions, such as the Western Wall Tunnel and Har Homa, the idea that Arafat is the only leader from whom remedial efforts are required seems unlikely to win much American, European, Egyptian or Jordanian support. The entire American position in the Middle East is at issue again.

Moreover, many of the measures proposed at the hastily conceived Cabinet meeting on the day of the bombing have proved difficult to implement. The Israeli government would not be well advised to interfere with radio frequencies, and the money destined for Palestinians is simply not Israel's money. In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot fail to be disconcerted by President Ezer Weizman's forthright insistence on traveling to the United States, where Netanyahu's absence could become embarrassing.

All eyes now seem to turn to the Palestinian leader alone.

In an enlightening interview, Netanyahu proudly recorded that he has awarded freedom to about 2.8 percent of the territory at issue. What he understandably seeks in return is the total liquidation of the opposition elements in the West Bank and Gaza, the arrest of the leading Hamas personalities, the destruction of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad infrastructure, the continued maintenance of the closure and delays in regional projects, such as the Gaza airfield and port.

If that kind of deal is really feasible, all Israelis will be pleasantly surprised. Whether the talented and imperturbable Dennis Ross could deliver on such a transaction will come to a test within a few days. The trouble is that the deal may not be at hand, and the Palestinian people may find that its very capacity to play an anti-terrorist role is being undermined by the stringent measures recently imposed by Israeli security.

That the Palestinian Authority is doing more to combat terrorism than before is freely acknowledged by the Israeli security services, including Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. Yet no provision is made for the contingency that the Palestinians may be near the end of their capacity to play any role at all.

There is an intrinsic conflict in the ambivalence in Israeli thinking between the need to weaken Arafat for punitive reasons and the need to strengthen him to secure his cooperation in anti-terrorist activities. The Palestinians could be reduced to the status of an ineffective partner for resistance to terrorist assaults.

In these conditions, the American mediation becomes more crucial than at any time in the evolving peace process. It is already apparent that there is no disposition by any of the parties to renounce the Oslo Accords. Neither Egypt nor Jordan would cooperate in the passivity that has marked the previous U.S. initiatives.

The total absence of any viable alternative gives the Oslo agreements a curious longevity. The United States has been maneuvered into a position in which it can only make the situation either much better or disastrously worse.

Former Secretary of State James Baker took the initiative by visiting the Middle East, discussing its problems frankly with its leaders and setting the stage for the Madrid Conference, which led inexorably to the Oslo Accords.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher has been maligned by the U.S. media. His correct determination that peace between Israel and Syria would be a massive windfall for world peace led him to visit Damascus, showing a perseverance without which great benefits are never won.

In comparison with these examples, the hesitations of the Clinton administration do not bear out the president's claim to have been Israel's most solicitous friend.

It is a challenging moment for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to enter the arena. The United States has everything to play for and nothing to lose by a purposeful and detailed diplomacy.

The writer is a former foreign minister. This column previously appeared in the Jerusalem Post.