Hillary Clinton's comments this week on the need for a Palestinian state, whether or not they were part of a planned unofficial diplomatic nudge, were unfortunate. They made the administration look clumsy and amateurish.
Likewise the administration's official ultimatums to Israel. The White House has candidly acknowledged "there is an endgame under way here" and, to use another sports metaphor, "We just don't know how many overtimes are left."Critics have accused the Clinton administration of being indecisive and tentative in its foreign policy decisions. Clearly, the administration is attempting to act with resolve in this crisis, but how wise is it to begin using terms such as "end-game" in a situation that, in many ways, is thousands of years old? The conflict is fairly simple to describe. Two groups of people each lay claim to the same territory, each with fervent religious intent. Specifically, each lays claim to Jerusalem. It is a conflict that doesn't lend itself to a quick resolution.
And how wise is it to back a forceful leader such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a corner? Netanyahu must maintain his own constituency at home. Already, one member of the Knesset has said he could rally enough votes to topple the Israeli leader if he agrees to U.S. demands. How would an Israeli political crisis play into the administration's strategy?
U.S. demands call for an Israeli withdrawal from 13 percent of its territory along the West Bank. Details of the proposal have not been made public, but Netanyahu has strong concerns about any withdrawal that would remove Israeli control from parts of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea - areas considered vital for military and strategic regions.
That's understandable. Although Israel is on friendly terms with its immediate neighbor to the east, Jordan, it does need to maintain a defensive posture against more hostile neighbors farther to the east.
Can the administration end this crisis without hurting its relationship with Israel? Already, State Department spokesman James Rubin has started to backpedal, saying "There's no pressure on Israel." Meanwhile, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agreed to meet with Netanyahu Wednesday. A retreat may be called for here.
This is not the final crisis to involve Israel and the Palestinians. The administration would be wise to maintain credibility with both sides and act as a facilitator for peace, not a sledgehammer trying to force its way through an impasse.