News Analysis: Stalemated negotiations force a greater U.S. role

WASHINGTON — When Yitzhak Rabin grasped Yasser Arafat's extended hand at the White House five years ago, they were not only welcoming an end to decades of violence but a recognition that they reached this goal on their own — without the assistance of the United States.

Five years later, it appears that only with the help of the United States will the peace process survive.

At the same time, the warming in U.S.-Israel relations that followed the 1993 agreement has chilled considerably since the process deadlocked some 18 months ago.

In fact, President Clinton is known to have told friends that he blames Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for nearly destroying the peace process.

According to one friend of the president, Clinton became animated during a conversation and said he was not going to allow Netanyahu to scuttle an agreement that he personally signed.

Many analysts argue that this is proof enough that there are in fact two chapters in the Oslo process: the one written by Rabin and former Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in which the Clinton administration played the role of a friendly observer, and the second, which began after Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996 and the United States was forced to become directly involved.

The Oslo Accords caught the Clinton administration off-guard. American officials did not learn of the agreement until after a small group of Palestinians and Israelis concluded secret talks in the Norwegian capital.

Rabin called then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in August 1993, told him that "something important has developed," and asked him to meet with Peres, according to Joel Singer, the primary author of the Declaration of Principles who was in Rabin's office at the time. Christopher cut short his vacation and, at an army base in California, received Peres, Singer and two senior Norwegian officials who sponsored the secret talks.

"Christopher is a person whose face never reveals his emotions. For the first time, he showed complete surprise," Singer said in a telephone interview this week, recalling the moment the secretary of state heard that the two sides had reached an agreement.

Two weeks later, the accords were signed and Rabin and Clinton began a closeness that an Israeli premier and an American president had never before shared.

Rabin was like a father figure to Clinton. In meetings he was known to interrupt Clinton, treating him with a brash intimacy that shocked many veteran Israeli and American diplomats.

After Rabin was struck down by an assassin's bullet in November 1995, Clinton emerged puffy-eyed from the Oval Office to eulogize his friend in the Rose Garden.

The White House then unofficially put its weight behind Peres in the Israeli election.

After Peres lost in May 1996, one Jewish official compared the probable future to the biblical story of Joseph's dream.

But instead of seven years of good harvest followed by seven years of famine, this official speculated that the United States and Israel, which had just enjoyed four years of good relations, would suffer through four years of tension.

Indeed, Netanyahu's administration has been marked by periods of open strife with the White House over the peace process.

Some blame the dynamic on the Oslo Accords themselves. "At this five-year point" the accords "appear to have made the relationship more difficult rather than the reverse," said Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank.

"Things go along swimmingly when Israel makes concessions," but when Israel says "enough," Pipes said, the relationship grows "more sour."

In spite of its see-sawing, which included Clinton's closing the White House doors to Netanyahu, the peace process has had little impact on the overall relationship between the two allies, some pro-Israel activists say.

"The bedrock of the relationship has withstood the ups and downs of the peace process," said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is marking the anniversary by hosting a Capitol Hill briefing on the accords.

But Pipes, who is critical of the Clinton administration's policy, said that since Netanyahu came to power "there has been a sense of increasing sourness" and "annoyed relations."

Unlike Kohr, Pipes believes U.S.-Israel relations have been damaged. Because America senses that something has been given and then retracted, he said, "it's created long-term problems."

The relationship between the two allies has deteriorated since Netanyahu invited the United States to take a greater role in the peace talks. For the first time, American negotiators sat between the Palestinians and Israelis, mediating their differences.

Now, as Dennis Ross again is in the Middle East acting as a mediator, the peace talks are viewed as light years from the secret negotiations conducted directly between the Israelis and Palestinians in Oslo five years ago.

"Does that raise questions? Yes. But the alternative to America not playing that role is the end of Oslo," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Saperstein is scheduled to speak at a pro-Oslo Accords rally here Sunday that has been endorsed by the Reform and Conservative movements and leaders of other Jewish groups.

Oslo is still "a process that holds the best chance for peace in the Middle East," he said.

Of course, not everyone in the Jewish community agrees with the rally's premise.

The Zionist Organization of America this week published a scathing 52-page report of Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords.

"We see very little evidence that Arafat has transformed himself from the terrorist that he always was," said Morton Klein, ZOA's president.

"Is Israel better off on the five-year anniversary of Oslo than on the day that Oslo was signed? Most of us would say that Israel is not.''

But with negotiators on the brink of a breakthrough agreement over the transfer of additional West Bank land to the Palestinians, Sunday's rally could turn into a celebration.

Israeli and American officials in the United States have begun to make arrangements for a possible summit meeting between Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat at the end of this month.

Both Arafat and Netanyahu plan to speak around Sept. 23, which is the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.