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Monday, December 14, 1998 Published at 08:31 GMT


Analysis: Clinton's Middle East gamble

A Jewish man in Jerusalem rides his mountain bike past posters opposing Mr Clinton's visit

By US Affairs Analyst Jonathan Marcus

President Clinton's trip to the Middle East underscores a subtle but significant change in his Administration's stance towards the Middle East peace process.

It is a change that could have profound implications for the future of ties between Israel and Washington.

Middle East
Beset by problems at home, President Clinton has invested a huge amount of his personal political capital in the pursuit of a lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Diplomatic minefield

But given the political uncertainty in Israel over the fate of Binyamin Netanyahu's government and the fundamental disagreements over the release of Palestinian prisoners, Mr Clinton's trip risks becoming a diplomatic minefield.

In October the so-called Wye River agreement brokered by the Americans gave the peace process a renewed lease of life. The idea of a trip to the region by the US President emerged from that meeting.

The Israelis believed it would be a way of ensuring that the Palestinians were held to their part of the bargain. President Clinton is due to watch a meeting of the Palestine National Council on Monday that will renounce all elements of their Charter that call for the destruction of the State of Israel.

New role for US

But the real significance of the Wye River agreement was the fact that Washington - for so long the ally of Israel - also emerged as the patron of the Palestinians.

The United States took on a new and more involved role in the peace process.

The Central Intelligence Agency, for example, was given the job of determining both the Israeli and the Palestinians compliance with security aspects of the agreement. And it is this change in the US relationship with the Palestinians that makes the Clinton trip so risky.

US-Israeli paradox

Nobody should run away with the idea that Washington's strong support for Israel is diminishing - at least not in the short-term.

But there is a paradox in US-Israel relations, which operate at two distinct levels.

On the surface, the current relationship is far from happy. The Clinton Administration and the Netanyahu government are not happy in each other's company.

Press reports in Israel suggest that a meeting between Israel's Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon and US officials last week degenerated into a shouting match.

Nonetheless, beneath this superficial level, ties between Israel and Washington remain strong. The military relationship is intimate. And there is still a groundswell of support for the Jewish State on Capitol Hill.

But even Israeli analysts have begun to question how long the fundamental relationship can be insulated from the day-to-day political fall-out.

A bumpy trip for the President may only accentuate such questions.

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