U.S. "headbanger" set for top Mideast post?

Holbrooke's name is mentioned as White House braces for visit by Israel's new conservative leader

Published July 9, 1996 7:13PM (EDT)

Fearing that the entire Middle East peace process could collapse, the Clinton administration is considering naming Richard Holbrooke, the tough former diplomat who negotiated the Dayton peace accords on Bosnia, as the new U.S. coordinator for peace efforts in the region.

The floating of Holbrooke's name coincides with the arrival in Washington today of newly elected conservative Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the appointment of extreme hardliner Ariel Sharon to a senior Israeli cabinet post. Netanyahu's victory -- widely regarded as a setback for the peace process -- was as surprising as it was unwelcome to the Clinton administration, and has prompted talk of the need for a major shake-up among Mideast policy makers.

"The thinking (at the White House) is they need to bring in somebody who will knock heads, somebody with a fresh perspective," one source close to senior policy circles said. "They want new blood."

Holbrooke, now vice chairman at First Boston Corporation, a Wall Street investment firm, said he has not been approached about the post. "I'm not involved in it at all," he said. Indeed, the appointment would not likely occur until a Clinton second term. Nevertheless, the timing of the reports appears intended as a warning to Netanyahu that the U.S. is prepared to match his tough-sounding positions on peace with an equally tough-talking American diplomat.

The White House's consideration of Holbrooke is also a sign of President Clinton's deep displeasure with the current Special Middle East Coordinator, Dennis Ross, and his State Department team. It was Ross who urged President Clinton to openly back incumbent prime minister Shimon Peres in the May 20 Israeli election, assuring the president that the moderate Labor Party leader would defeat Netanyahu. According to administration sources, Ross has been unable to come up with policies to deal with Netanyahu's hardline stands, which include a refusal to trade the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, a refusal to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a refusal to allow the Palestinians to establish their capital in Arab-held East Jerusalem.

The addition of Sharon to the Israeli cabinet as the head of a new and powerful Ministry of Infrastructure is especially worrisome to the White House. As defense minister under Israel's first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, Sharon launched Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon, whose aim was to crush the Beirut-based Palestine Liberation Organization. Sharon was forced to resign in disgrace in 1983 after an Israeli commission of inquiry found that he recklessly allowed armed Lebanese Christian soldiers into two Palestinian refugee camps, where they massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians.

Under Begin's successor, Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Sharon returned to the government, this time as housing minister, a position he used to accelerate Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, despite U.S. protests. In his new post in the Netanyahu government, Sharon will oversee water, electricity and roads, which, among other things, empowers him to confiscate Arab land for the construction of new roads through the West Bank and to control water sources in the territory -- that Israelis and Palestinians are supposed to share under their peace accords.

White House sources say the Clinton administration will try at all costs to avoid a showdown with the new Israeli government, at least before the U.S. elections in November. "Politically, our hands are tied right now," said one official, "but a resumption of settlement activity or excessively rough security measures against the Palestinians, these kinds of provocations are not going to be taken lightly by this administration" during a second term.

That's where Holbrooke may come in. The 55-year-old diplomat was highly regarded in Washington even before he cajoled, cudgeled and cowed the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia to accept a negotiated peace in Dayton last year. Holbrooke began his diplomatic career in Vietnam, where he served for six years during the 1960s. He then returned to Washington, where he wrote one volume of the
Pentagon Papers, the Johnson administration's secret history of the Vietnam War. He was a member of the American negotiating team at the Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War.

From 1977 to 1981, Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the period when the United States
established full diplomatic relations with China. After a stint on Wall Street, he was appointed ambassador to Germany by President Clinton in 1993. A year later, he became assistant secretary of state for European affairs, the position he used to broker the Bosnian peace accord in the fall of 1995. Though Holbrooke returned to Wall Street last December, those who know him say he remains involved in behind-the-scenes policy deliberations over Bosnia and does not hide his ambition to replace Secretary of State Warren Christopher in a second Clinton administration.

Known as brilliant, blunt and abrasive, some White House sources say Holbrooke would be the ideal diplomat to deal with the Middle East. "Just remember who Dick is," said a source close to the White
House. "He is himself a Jew, married to a Jew, knows Israel, knows all the players and comes off one of the most chancy diplomatic missions in Bosnia with great success." Holbrooke is married to author Kati Marton, who wrote "A Death in Jerusalem," a book about the Stern Gang's assassination of Swedish U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte.

If appointed, Holbrooke would bring to U.S. peacemaking efforts "a kind of keen intelligence, toughness and daring that nobody has now," said the source, taking another swipe at the existing Mideast policy team. "Nobody has any daring anymore."

Quote of the day

Stealth candidate

"I don't plan to go out on the campaign or fund-raising trail. I am practicing my own politics privately."

--Retired General Colin Powell, in a radio interview describing his planned involvement, or lack thereof, in the Dole presidential campaign.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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