After a week of failed efforts to rescue the Middle East peace process, the Clinton administration began Friday to take the politically painful step of leaning hard on Israel to make it happen.
A reluctance to pressure its ally has been at the heart of America's low profile since a Jewish extremist gunned down dozens of Palestinians in a mosque near Hebron Feb. 25.
But mounting Palestinian demands for international protection, together with the political weakness of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, have cracked that posture.
The administration moved Friday toward endorsing some form of security-oriented international presence in the occupied territories, which the PLO is demanding as a condition for returning to the peace table.
While publicly insisting this was up to the PLO and Israel to work out, the State Department did not contradict Arafat aide Nabil Shaath's claim that he had held a "positive discussion" with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and others about the plan.
Shaath was vague on how muscular the force would be. But he said, "We're not talking about historians and psychoanalysts; we're talking about security-oriented people."
President Clinton, asked about Shaath's comments, replied: "I'm encouraged in a way by what he said, but I wouldn't overstate it."
U.S. support for the dispatch of U.N. troops could touch off a bitter dispute between the United States and Israel. While not rejecting an international presence, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin insists that it be composed of unarmed civilians.
Administration officials consider some international presence a necessary expedient to resuming the peace process. But they stress that the faster the accord outlining limited Palestinian autonomy in the territories is implemented, the sooner Palestinians will have their own police force to protect them.