At the United Nations, an American Juggling Act

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The Clinton administration may be working the phones night and day on the crisis in the Middle East, but the one place they don't want to talk about it is in the U.N. Security Council. U.S. diplomats are currently engaged in an intense behind-the-scenes struggle to stop the Security Council debating the issue, because it leaves Washington in an uncomfortable position. Last weekend, the U.S. managed to sufficiently water down a Security Council resolution condemning Israel to avoid having to use its veto, but it would be unlikely to be as lucky next time. And vetoing any resolution would infuriate the moderate Arab regimes without whose help Washington has little hope of calming the Israeli-Palestinian violence, while letting it stand would incense the Israelis.

"We understand the U.S. concern to be able to talk to both sides," Yehuda Lancry, Israel's U.N. ambassador told TIME, "but if there is another resolution, we want a clear veto." Israeli emotions over the brutal beating to death of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah this week are too intense to stand for equivocation from the U.S. Washington is Israel's only staunch ally in the international forum, while the Palestinians are able to count on a unified group of Arab ambassadors. But using the veto on Israel's behalf not only risks diminishing the ability of the U.S. to mediate in the crisis, it may also expose American citizens, installations and property abroad to terrorist reprisals in a conflict that is not directly under U.S. control. The attacks on a U.S. warship and on the British embassy in Yemen in the past 24 hours may be only the first taste of what lies ahead.

The U.S. game plan for avoiding an uncomfortable showdown in the Security Council is to support U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's current peace mission in Israel. As long as Annan is talking to Arafat and Barak, Washington's U.S. ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, can fend off a Security Council debate by arguing that it might undercut Annan's efforts.

International efforts to calm the situation, however, may be encountering a changed dynamic in the Middle East. It became clear to Yasser Arafat at Camp David that he could not rely on the U.S. to achieve his cherished Palestinian state in the time frame he had promised his home constituency, and he has turned once again to his Arab allies. The White House had hoped to organize a three-way summit in Europe to calm the situation, and there are now suggestions that such a conference may take place in Cairo. But Arafat is clearly counting on an Arab League summit scheduled for Cairo on October 21, and if he attends a U.S.-brokered meeting before that the Arab summit may be rendered irrelevant. But the more rockets Israel fires into Palestinian buildings and the more Palestinians it shoots in street clashes, the stronger Arafat's position will be at the Arab summit. No one seriously expects the Arab countries to attack Israel militarily, but with oil now selling at around $35 a barrel, the Arabs have other options. If Arab public opinion continues to intensify against Israel and its chief supporter, even our close allies in the Middle East may not be able to resist the pressure.