Peace Process Hang-Up

Arabs need to reciprocate to Middle East concessions by Israel Prime Minster Yitshak Rabin lest his political support at home evaporate

WITH the first anniversary of the start of the Arab-Israeli peace talks in Madrid nearing, it is time to take stock of developments up to this point in order to determine where the talks might go from here. The most important change over the last year was the election in Israel of a government genuinely committed to the peace process.

Since forming his coalition government in mid-July, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has made a series of gestures to both the Palestinians and Syria to spur the peace process.

These have included: 1) stopping new house construction in the occupied territories; 2) ending government subsidies for the purchase of Arab homes by Jewish groups in East Jerusalem; 3) ending work on almost all intifadah bypass roads that were designed to allow West Bank settlers to avoid Arab population centers; 4) announcement of the early release of 800 imprisoned Palestinians; 5) cancellation of the Israeli government's expulsion order for 11 Palestinian activists; 6) agreement that Diaspora Palesti nians could participate in the multilateral talks on refugees and regional economic cooperation (so long as they were not members of the PLO); and 7) Israel's public willingness to consider a withdrawal from part, if not all, of the Golan Heights.

These concessions, however, have not elicited similar concessions from the Arab side. While Syria has vaguely promised "total peace for a total withdrawal," it has not explained what "total peace" means.

The Palestinians have not even gone that far. They continue to cling to their initial bargaining position, which calls for an elected legislature with complete control over all aspects of West Bank and Gaza life except foreign policy.

This disparity in concessions has begun to cause serious domestic problems for Mr. Rabin.

Opponents on the right of the Israeli political spectrum assert that Rabin is giving away too much, while even members of the Labor party who live on the Golan Heights have demonstrated angrily against him, as have the West Bank and Gaza settlers unhappy with shrinking government support for their settlements.

This, in turn, has begun to reinvigorate the Likud Party, still in disarray after its poor showing in the June election. Compounding Rabin's problems have been a resurgence of attacks on Israel from Lebanon and a renewal of Palestinian rioting - linked to a hunger strike by prisoners - which has led to an increase in the number of attacks on Israeli civilians.

The right complains that it was Rabin's concessions to the Palestinians that encouraged it to escalate the violence.

IF neither the Palestinians nor Syrians are willing to further the peace process, what can be done to strengthen Rabin's political position?

It might help if the Arab economic embargo against Israel were lifted, at least by the wealthy Arab states of the Persian Gulf. One of the basic requirements for Israel before it will sign peace agreements with the Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians, and Lebanese is that it be accepted as a legitimate state within the Middle East, with diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations with its Arab neighbors. Indeed, discussions about economic cooperation on a regional basis are now under way.

Nonetheless, Israelis cannot take these talks too seriously until the Arab states end their economic boycott against Israel. This not only prohibits their own trade with Israel, but also trade with companies that trade with Israel. By ending the secondary boycott, the Gulf Arabs could send an important signal to Israel that they, too, are willing to make concessions for peace, and this, in turn, would help Rabin politically.

There is, however, a question as to whether the Gulf Arabs have the capability of making a concession like lifting the secondary boycott. Here, the role of the United States becomes particularly important, and it should be noted that earlier this month Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger called the continuation of the boycott "inconsistent with the spirit of the Middle East peace talks" and urged the Arabs to lift it.

As the main security provider for the Gulf Arabs, the US has considerable political clout, should it choose to use it, particularly after the US performance in the recent Gulf war.

Essentially, the Gulf states have only three alternatives to assure their national security against threats from Iraq and Iran.

First, they can depend on their own forces, but they do not have the population to match either Iraq or Iran.

Second, they can depend on their more populous Arab allies, Egypt and Syria, who provided troops in the Gulf war. The Gulf leaders, however, do not trust Syria and are concerned about the weakness of the Egyptian government, so this option, too, does not work.

The remaining option is to depend on the US, and, at least in the short run, this has been the one selected as all of the Gulf states have either formal (i.e., Kuwait) or de facto (i.e., Saudi Arabia) military security agreements with the US.

This, in turn, gives the US considerable political leverage in the Gulf, and it is hoped that a Clinton administration will follow through on Eagleburger's statement and actively encourage the Gulf Arabs to lift their economic boycott of Israel.

Such a move would not only strengthen Rabin's hand on the Israeli domestic political scene, it would also reinforce the American commitment to see the peace process through to its completion.

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