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Middle East: U.S. Says Peace Process In 'Dire Straits'

Washington, 31 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department says the Middle East peace process is in "dire straits" despite efforts by a senior American envoy to find common ground between Israel and the Palestinians.

State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters Monday that Ambassador Dennis Ross has been unable to bridge the gap between the two sides. Ross is President Bill Clinton's envoy to the Middle East.

Rubin said Washington has not made any decision on what to do next.

He said: "There is no substitute for the leaders themselves making the tough calls. In the absence of decisions by those leaders to bridge the gap themselves, there isn't much the United States can do."

Ross held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during his latest peace mission. He is expected to return to Washington today (Tuesday) to report back to Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The Ross mission was viewed as critical to restore momentum to the stalled peace process.

Ross went to the region with a U.S.proposal for further Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank, contingent on simultaneous security measures by Palestinian authorities to safeguard against terrorism.

News reports said the United States is seeking an Israeli pullback from about 13 percent of West Bank territory. Israel has said a large-scale withdrawal at this time would compromise its security.

Rubin said the pivotal questions are how much territory Israel is willing to give up and what kind of security measures the Palestinians are willing to take to prevents attacks against Israel.

He said: "We have been unable to bridge the gaps" on these issues.

One option, Rubin says, for the United States is to remove itself from a "direct catalytic role" in the peace talks.

But he says it is not an option that Albright is advocating or would like to see happen.

The State Department spokesman says that in addition to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, there is no progress on any other aspect of the Middle East peace process.

Rubin said there are no talks "of significance" concerning the Golan Heights, which the Syrians lost during the 1967 war and want returned. And he notes that there are also no negotiations concerning an Israeli pullback from its self-proclaimed security zone in Lebanon.

On Lebanon, Rubin says the United States wants Israel to withdraw its troops. But he says the U.S. also wants to see a "real, full and comprehensive peace between Israelis and Lebanese that would increase the security of both sides."

Rubin says: "There is a growing disillusionment among the people (of the Middle East) about what peace can bring. These are excruciating issues that are going to take a long time to negotiate."