Challenge, Opportunity In Mideast Peace Quest

THE resumption of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, for the first time under the Clinton administration's auspices, and following a five-month-long suspension, presents a challenge and an opportunity for President Clinton to advance significantly the peace process toward a solution.

What may come out of the new round of talks, analysts agree, will depend on (a) the readiness of the United States to persuade, push, or pressure the parties to make important concessions to produce interim agreements, and more important, (b) the ability of the US to conceptualize how a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace would look in the face of continuing regional instability.

Without such an all-encompassing conception, the US will be reacting to proposals and counterproposals that reflect each participant's separate agenda. Many Israeli and Arab leaders agree that if the US leaves the parties to their own devices an agreement may never be reached.

Although the Clinton administration cannot state publicly its overall conception, the US must develop a framework, based on bilateral discussions with Israel and the individual Arab entities, as to what might constitute a fair settlement based on UN resolution 242. Critical issues, including the future status of a united Jerusalem and the establishment of an independent Palestinian entity, should be part of the US's vision for peace.

A settlement that does not ensure Israel's security and territorial integrity, and meet the Palestinian and Syrian minimum national and territorial requirements, will not work. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin nor any Arab head of state could survive the political storm that would ensue should the solution appear inequitable and clearly not meet these basic national requirements.

The US framework for Arab-Israeli peace must also be envisioned in the context of the changing geopolitical dynamic of the Middle East, especially the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the growing military preponderance of Iran since the Gulf war. The Arab states' greatest concern no longer is Israel. The real threat is one that Iranian-inspired Islamic fundamentalism poses to their respective countries.

Since the Arab states and Israel have basically agreed on "gradualism" - a method that offers phased-in withdrawal and confidence-building measures - it will also be necessary to create certain security valves for each phase to guard against those elements that will try to undermine the peace process during any of the stages.

For example: What would happen if there were a Hamas uprising against the Palestinian self-rule after it had been put in place? What if any of the confrontational Arab states are taken over by Islamic fundamentalists?

This is not to suggest that Israel should officially join the Arab states or the Palestinians in their battle against Islamic fundamentalism or against Palestinian Marxist groups, but it does mean the development of contingency plans that could address such potential developments.

In addition, the US and the Arab states should recognize the need for new regional security arrangements and the centrality of Israel's direct and indirect role as the region's most powerful country.

American-Israeli confluence of interest has shifted in the post-cold war from global - containing the Soviet Union - to regional as a counterbalance to Iran. While fully aware of Israel's changing role, the Arab states look to Israel to provide military deterrence, including nuclear, against Iran.

ISRAELI and Arab officials concede that, although it appears that the suspension of the talks has caused a temporary setback to the negotiations, paradoxically it has created a much greater sense of urgency to reach an agreement. Both sides know that the continuation of the conflict will only strengthen Iran and further fuel Islamic fundamentalism, which contributes to instability.

The Clinton administration feels rightly that, if the conflict is to be resolved, the best agent in Israel under the present circumstances is Mr. Rabin. This explains why the president is using economic inducements and political support to encourage Rabin.

The president also expects the Arabs to be more forthcoming in the peace negotiations.

An Arab-Israeli peace offers the US an unprecedented opportunity to enhance regional stability, which is essential to its short- and long-term strategic interests. The Clinton administration simply cannot allow the peace process to collapse.

President Clinton is staking the prestige of his office on bringing about the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Considering the intractability of the conflict, however, his efforts may not be enough unless he establishes a clear vision for a comprehensive peace while mustering the political will and the determination to lead.

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