News Analysis: As Iraq flap ends, U.S. expected to push peace process

JERUSALEM — With the U.S.-Iraq confrontation off the front burner, Israel and the Palestinians are busily preparing for a new bout of American diplomacy.

A new peacemaking initiative was widely anticipated in the aftermath of a showdown with Iraq.

Pundits predicted that the United States, unpopular and resented in large parts of the Arab world after another massive bombardment of Iraq, would have made high-profile efforts to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process — by vigorously pressuring Israel if necessary.

As it happened, the bombardment was averted by the diplomatic efforts of the U.N. secretary-general. But resolving the Iraqi crisis peacefully did little to diminish Arab hostility toward Washington.

Across the region the argument is often made that Washington displays "double standards." Israel, it is claimed, flouts or ignores U.N. resolutions just as Iraq does. And Israel, too, has weapons of mass destruction.

It is not hard, of course, to punch holes in that spurious analogy, and U.S. diplomats regularly do so.

Just the same, the Clinton administration would clearly like to be perceived, at least by the Arab moderates, as being even-handed. Hence the expectation this week, in Israel and in the Gaza Strip, that a renewed American diplomatic initiative is imminent.

In meetings President Clinton held in January with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, it was clear that an American proposal was taking shape.

Sources say that under the proposal, Israel would withdraw another 13.1 percent from the West Bank. That redeployment would be made in phases and would be directly linked to Palestinian cooperation on security issues.

The Palestinians want much more than 13.1 percent. But they will not balk because their key demand — that another Israeli redeployment follow later this year — enjoys Washington's support.

For the Israeli government, 13.1 percent is too much. It prefers to keep the figure down to a single digit and to make that redeployment the last. Israel also wants any subsequent troop pullbacks to be part of the final-status negotiations.

In recent months, Netanyahu has repeatedly called for those negotiations to start. Arafat has responded that Israel should first live up to the terms of already-signed agreements.

But the way the United States emerged from the latest round of its seven-year conflict with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may determine if, and how, this dispute is resolved.

Can the Netanyahu government now more readily afford to reject U.S. proposals given the way Washington's standing in the Arab world has been weakened?

And does Washington's determination to improve its position among the Arab moderates mean that it will push all the harder for Netanyahu — and Arafat — to swallow its proposals for advancing the peace process?

Israeli and Palestinian leaders, at any rate, are anxious to project an image of earnest desire to move matters forward.

That explains a recent intense series of meetings between the two sides.

Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai met with Arafat's second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas, to discuss an issue left unresolved from the 1995 Interim Agreement — the opening of a Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians asserted later that nothing was achieved at the meeting, and that the airport's opening is still blocked by disputes over security arrangements.

But that did not prevent the parties from arranging additional meetings this week, at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Edward Walker, just to show how earnest they were.

Israeli Cabinet minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, was understood to be conducting contacts on a high level with the Palestinian Authority, and there were reports that Netanyahu was also holding similar meetings.

At the same time, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated that he would not accept an any "imposed solution."

"An imposed solution is neither desirable nor viable, and simply will never happen," Netanyahu told a visiting delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Monday.

He said that Palestinian attempts to "elicit outside pressure [on Israel] does not work."