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Sleeping toward Bethlehem

The Hebron mosque massacre has rekindled old suspicions and hatreds that threaten to destroy the Israeli-PLO peace talks, but the Clinton administration doesn't seem to comprehend the danger. If this historic opportunity for Middle East peace is to be salvaged, Washington will have to respond to this crisis with more energy and imagination than it has shown so far.

Israeli and PLO representatives can't agree on much else right now, but they seem equally displeased with the Clinton administration's failure to act aggressively to get the peace talks back on track. One Israeli official characterized the U.S. reaction as "sleepy."

Both sides are looking to the United States, which was largely responsible for setting this process in motion last year, to assert its leadership again. Instead, President Clinton Wednesday offered little more than his blithe belief that the Palestinian representatives "want to come back" to the negotiating table.

They surely do, but the political reality of the Middle East is that Yasser Arafat and his negotiating team cannot afford to set foot in the same room with Israeli representatives under the current circumstances. They need _ and deserve _ major concessions designed to assure that Palestinians in the occupied territories are protected from other Jewish settlers who share Baruch Goldstein's mad vision.

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin needs the Clinton administration to provide him with political cover for the kinds of concessions he realizes he has to make. Rabin, like Arafat, must fend off the extremists he nominally represents. He would find it much easier to "grudgingly" accept concessions demanded by the United States than to offer the same concessions himself.

President Clinton would be doing both sides a favor if he proposed aggressive steps to disarm Jewish settlers in the occupied territories and to establish an international presence there to monitor the safety of Arabs and Israelis alike. Even before last week's massacre, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had signaled his government's willingness to accept a non-military international contingent in the occupied territories. Given today's circumstances, the United States has every reason to press Israel to agree to such a force under terms that satisfy Palestinian demands.

Conversations along those lines surely are taking place in private, but there is no indication that U.S. officials appreciate the urgency of their task. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was bland and tentative even by his standards in discussing the issue before the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday. He insisted that any new plan for keeping the peace in the occupied territories "is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to work out."

Such passivity on the Clinton administration's part is irresponsible. Unless all sides act quickly to re-energize the peace process, the Hebron massacre is likely to be only the first bloody chapter in a new cycle of violence and revenge. Rest assured that those opposed to peace are already plotting their next steps. That gives those promoting peace precious little time to plot theirs.

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