Milton Viorst's attack on the Clinton administration's approach toward Arab-Israeli peacemaking [op-ed, Nov. 17] is off the mark. There are indeed real opportunities for historic agreements in the next year, and these should not be missed. But placing want ads for a new presidential envoy will not help realize these opportunities. Instead, we need to intensify the diplomacy that has helped Arabs and Israelis achieve the impressive gains they have made during the past six years.

Viorst's notion that the United States controls the pace of peacemaking and can accelerate the clock by changing or elevating the level of its negotiators is naive. Viorst is right to credit Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and James Baker for the historic roles they played; but diplomatic successes don't occur simply because the United States wills them. More frequently, opportunities for Arab-Israeli peacemaking are created by events or changing realities in the region. When we succeed in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, we do so because we are able to understand what has changed, when to act and how to find an appropriate and effective U.S. role.

Finding the right role to play at the right time has been critical to U.S. success. That's why Viorst's criticism of the administration's record in Arab-Israeli diplomacy during the past six years is puzzling. He ignores President Clinton's and former secretary of state Warren Christopher's efforts between 1993 and 1996 to marshal international support for the Oslo process, promote Israeli-Jordanian peace, bring an end to crises in Southern Lebanon and narrow gaps between Israelis and Syrians at "Wye One."

Viorst also devalues the administration's response to the crisis of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians after 1996. President Clinton and Secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright's efforts not only kept the process alive but, by engaging a Likud government in the Oslo process, helped broaden and deepen support for Israeli-Palestinian peace in Israel. As Viorst contends, the Wye River Agreement was about interim issues, but it also addressed issues such as the return of land and security critical to peacemaking. The agreement forestalled major violence and prevented the collapse of the peace process.

Because they understood the stakes involved, the secretary of state was willing to spend 15 months defining a basis for an agreement, and President Clinton was willing to risk a presidential summit to hammer out the terms of an accord. Moreover, Viorst's contention that Albright's September trip to the Middle East accomplished nothing is wrong. Her presence facilitated the conclusion of the Sept. 4 Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, which has led to the implementation of Wye and committed Israel and the Palestinians to the timetable for reaching an agreement on permanent status.

At the same time, Viorst's patronizing comments about Special Mid dle East Coordinator Dennis Ross and his deputy, Aaron Miller, are unfair. Yes, they have been part of this process for a long time. But that experience and the personal ties they've cultivated are invaluable. Ross's key role in both the Hebron and Wye agreements was critical to their success. Ross and Miller are two of the most dedicated and creative diplomats America has. And the Arabs and Israelis know that and respect them for it.

As we approach the critical year ahead, we cannot be distracted by quick bureaucratic fixes. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat have set a bold but achievable objective of concluding a framework agreement on permanent status by Feb. 13. They're serious in meeting this challenge, and so are we. We don't need another high-level special envoy, when the president and the secretary of state are willing to devote their time and effort to help the Israelis and the Palestinians reach an agreement.

The writer is assistant secretary of state for public affairs and department spokesman.