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Before Guns Are Silent, Prepare for Peace

By Alon Ben-MeirDr. Alon Ben-Meir is the author of several books on the Middle East. He has just returned from a visit to Israel and the region. / February 27, 1991



PRESIDENT Bush's decision to use force to reverse Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and his reliance on the United Nations resolutions to carry out that mandate have introduced a new balance of power in the Middle East and stimulated the emergence of new alliances. Middle East regional security and a future solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict will be dramatically affected by these developments. For the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States has demonstrated that it has both the political will and the military capability to defend simultaneously an Arab ally - Saudi Arabia - and Israel. Moreover, defending two allies, even though they are technically at war with each other, remains consistent with the US's regional strategy.

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Israel's restraint and willingness to support the alliance efforts further enhances its position in the eyes of the international community, including the Arab states that are taking part in the American-led coalition. Arab officials are intimating that the inclusion of Israel in a future regional security arrangement would contribute considerably to the stability of the region. They insist, however, that a solution to the Palestinian problem is an important precondition to such a development.

The US use of force to liberate Kuwait in compliance with UN resolutions provides a new opening for a solution to the Palestinian problem. Contrary to Palestinian contentions, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza can hardly be equated with the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, either in terms of cause or consequence. By spearheading a military crusade to redress the Iraqi aggression, however, the US has reasserted the principle that territorial acquisition by force will not stand. The US is not li kely to apply force against Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, but the US remains committed to UN resolutions requiring Israel to roll back its forces to the 1967 lines under conditions of peace.

Although the Israelis are aware of the implications of these developments, from their perspective Saddam Hussein's unprovoked Scud missile attacks and the jubilant reaction of Palestinians has vindicated Israel's long-held positions that territorial depth is critical to Israel's security, and that the Arab states' recognition of Israel's right to existence is a prerequisite to the solution of the Palestinian problem. These sentiments are supported by a growing number of Israelis, which makes the option of a two-state solution unacceptable to them for the foreseeable future.

Against this Israeli backdrop, and even though the Palestinians may seem to be the big casualty of the war for their support of Saddam Hussein, the Palestinian cause has been only marginally damaged. By trying to link the occupation of Kuwait to the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians have succeeded, at a minimum, in creating a sense of urgency about placing their problem at the top of the American postwar agenda. They view the US commitment not to allow territorial occupation to stand as positive. Eve n though the US does not endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state, Palestinians feel their position on political autonomy is much more in line with that of the US than that of Israel.

Although the ultimate conclusion of the Gulf war still lies ahead, there may not be a much better opportunity than now, before the guns are silent, for the US to begin the process of an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. A host of problems complicate the ever-intricate Middle East socioeconomic and political dynamic. The US should first focus on alleviating Israel's genuine security concerns. To that end, the US is in a position to bring considerable pressure to bear on the Arab states to recognize Israel's right to exist as a first step. Only then will Israel be in a position to show some flexibility and offer a form of political autonomy to the Palestinians which can be expanded upon in subsequent years.

The internal and external security matters will have to be left in the hands of joint Israeli, Jordanian, and Egyptian forces. In the context of developing a new security arrangement, the US could then expand, without much Arab opposition, US-Israel strategic cooperation agreement into a full-fledged defense treaty. Similar bilateral defense treaties should be extended to other Arab countries that recognize Israel's right to exist.

The Gulf war has finally brought to light several important realities: that Israel is very much integrated into the region; that a solution to the Palestinian problem is contingent upon the recognition of Israel by the Arab states; and that the US holds the key to the future security and stability of the Middle East.