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A group of MEF Board members traveled to Washington in early February for meetings at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Kuwaiti embassy, and the Middle East Institute. In addition, the group met at on the 7th floor of the State Department with Aaron Miller, the deputy to Dennis Ross, the Special Middle East Coordinator for the U.S. government. Mr. Miller gave us an inside look at the Hebron agreement of January 15 and its significance to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here's an outline of what he said, with some comments of mine:

The Meaning of Hebron

The agreement offers a prime example of "the power of diplomacy and logic to solve problems," and it presages a negotiated solution to the conflict, though not necessarily to a general state of peace in the Middle East. A "structure" of negotiations is now in place involving all of the Arab states, excepting only Iraq, Libya and Sudan; that so many countries take part means that it may in time produce important results.

Further, the process has withstood the test of almost continuous trauma (think back to the Rabin assassination in November 1995, the Tel Aviv terrorist attacks of a year ago, and the tunnel episode of last September) and appears to be moving, even if in fits and starts, toward its ultimate goal. That's because the participants have a self-interest in keeping it on track; the cost of perpetuating the conflict is simply too high to bear. This predicament goes far to explain why the two sides signed the Hebron Protocol, and why it portends further progress.

That said, the peace process is slow moving. Arab-Israeli tensions are deeply rooted in religious and ethnic differences and in considerations of power; they are not likely to end soon.

Looking to the future, a Palestinian State will ultimately emerge, consisting of the West Bank and Gaza, and will not pose a threat to Israel's security. The issue of the status of Jerusalem should be left for last. As any negotiator will confirm, the most difficult issues become more tractable, and less likely to become "deal breakers," when everything else has been agreed upon.

Likud's New Look

That the Likud party approved the Hebron Protocol is a major development. Prime Minister Netanyahu campaigned against the Oslo accords when running for office last May; but now seems to be "governing left after running to the right." Political power in Israel has long been polarized but indications now exist that a strong center is emerging. The Knesset approved the Oslo I and II accords by votes of 61-60 and 61-59; but it adopted the Hebron agreement by 87-17. Only the Israeli-Jordanian treaty was ratified by a greater majority, 105-3. This makes the Hebron agreement far more important than its specifics would seem to indicate.

Syria

The main priority now is for Israel to keep the negotiations going so that it further redeploys the IDF from the West Bank over the course of the next year and a half. Future issues include the Final Status talks with the Palestinians, winning further Arab recognition of the State of Israel, and (possibly) diplomatic progress with Syria. The Syrian track is not going well. Damascus has a concrete objective -- the return of the Golan Heights -- but cannot, or will not, guarantee a concrete quid pro quo. No negotiations, private or public, are taking place today; also, Syria's President Hafiz al-Asad has effectively "priced himself out of the market." An Israeli-Syrian shooting war remains remote (if only because Asad cannot win a one-on-one war with Israel), so are the prospects for a real peace.

America's Role

The Hebron deal resulted from an Israeli, not an American initiative; the U.S. government acted only after Netanyahu declared his intentions.

The U.S. government should make itself available as a facilitator, and not make an attempt to mold the terms of any Arab-Israeli agreement or to dictate the outcome of the negotiations. In no event should it become involved in negotiating details.

Impressions

I left the hour-long discussion with renewed hope for the future of the peace process, but with new concern about the reality of an Arab change of heart in attitudes toward Israel and Netanyahu's ability to handle the more hardline elements in his governing coalition.

Mr. Miller impressed me as knowledgeable and experienced; but his presentation seemed to be somewhat lacking in candor. Contrary to his protestations, there are strong indications that Hebron is the result, not of American diplomacy, but of American pressure on the signing parties. Could it be that the State Department policy shies away from taking credit for the Hebron Protocol, lest it someday be charged with its failure?

Mr. Linsenberg, a Philadelphia attorney, is a member of the Board of Governors of the Middle East Forum.