"The State Department is working hard to make sure that everyone's acting in concert, but there is a danger of everybody who is trying to mediate not being on the same script or at least not being on the script that the State Department wants them to be on. Madeleine Albright has been in close contact with Kofi Annan, and urged him to go to the Middle East and mediate, trusting his abilities and the fact that he'll be an honest broker.
"But there are other actors that have made clear where their sympathies lie both the Russians and French have been more sympathetic to Arafat's concerns than to the Israelis', and have been sharply critical of Israel's handling of the crisis. The danger, from Washington’s point of view, of these countries getting involved is that they may embolden Arafat to hang tough and make him less amenable to the compromises the U.S. sees as necessary to get the peace process back on track."
If the U.S. is sending Kofi Annan to play the role of honest broker, does that mean Washington is having trouble playing that role itself?
"The U.S. is currently trying to set up a four-way summit with the Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians at Sharm el Sheikh (a resort town in Egypt). And Washington is struggling to hold on to the role of honest broker. That’s why U.S. diplomats worked so hard to make sure the U.N. Security Council resolution on the issue was one from which it could simply abstain, rather than feel compelled to veto. Because if the U.S. had vetoed the resolution criticizing Israel’s handling of the crisis, the Arab world would have gone nuts. There’s mounting rage in the Arab world over how the Israelis have behaved, and that’s spilling over into anger against the U.S. That’s left the U.S. running close to abdicating the role of mediator, and President Clinton is now working desperately to reclaim that role."
Has Washington had to lower the bar of what its diplomacy can expect to achieve in terms of the peace process right now?
"Right now, the bar is dragging on the ground. Even going into last week's Paris talks with Arafat and Barak, U.S. officials were extremely pessimistic. Albright’s people thought the best they could hope for was to stop the violence. Most thought achieving any final peace agreement before President Clinton leaves office was a far-off possibility. Going into the talks, they said the only possibility of achieving an agreement was if the violence was ended swiftly and both leaders got a taste of what the alternative to a peace agreement would involve. But that hasn’t happened, and we're now well down the alternate path. Israel and the Palestinians are not in a state of war, but they're perilously close to one. So right now the U.S. is focused simply on halting the violence, and then making some sort of gesture such as President Clinton going to Sharm el Sheik in to get the peace process back on track. At this stage, that won’t mean a Camp David-style peace deal; the objective will merely be to get the two sides talking again rather than fighting. The situation right now looks pretty grim."