CAIRO — Daunting changes in the Mideast have pulled US Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the region to examine the new political equation and push for peace.
Arriving in Cairo June 26, Mr. Christopher faces a rising tide of Arab suspicion on the issue of whether the US is neutral in the peace process.
A growing distrust among many Arabs has two roots: the apparent American support of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the reported tacit approval by the US of Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" bombing of Lebanon in April.
Both issues, Arab analysts say, have helped to harm the Clinton administration's cachet in the Arab world - and consequently its ability to fulfill the traditional US role as catalyst for regional peace.
In making their case, the Arabs point to President Clinton, who said on the eve of the June 22-23 Arab summit that he was "pleased by the tone" of Mr. Netanyahu's policy guidelines.
These guidelines state that withdrawal from the Golan Heights and creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza - moves that Arabs see as critical to progress on peace - are no longer options that Israel will discuss.
Also, in preparing for his meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem June 25, Christopher indicated that US policy may adapt to Netanyahu: "The goal won't change," Christopher told the Associated Press, "but the route to those goals will have to reflect his plans."
US diplomats, however, insist that America is impartial. "If Arabs think the US is shifting away from being a balanced party, that is misplaced," says one US diplomat. "We are still balanced, still a fair interlocutor and mediator. The US has been committed to peace in the Mideast for more than 20 years, and that will not change."
And Arabs warn that any adjustment in the American position could jeopardize the future of the peace process.
"The US played a very positive and encouraging role from the beginning. Why should they stop now?" says Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist for Cairo's Al-Ahram newspaper.
At the Cairo summit, Arab leaders demanded that Israel stick to previous agreements by restarting talks to give up land occupied during the 1967 war. Israeli officials reacted angrily, saying Arabs were laying down preconditions for peace.
Arab leaders in Cairo also called upon the US to continue its crucial role in the regional peacemaking, even though doubt about the US role has been growing among Arab analysts.
Christopher will try to reverse such doubt as he tries to get the peace process back on track.
Christopher talked with Netanyahu in Jerusalem June 25 and secured an Israeli promise to expand contacts with the Palestinians. Christopher also planned to talk to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and possibly Palestinian President Yasser Arafat June 26.
In talking to the Arab leaders, Christopher must confront the memory of Grapes of Wrath.
Arab analysts note that the bombing displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians in southern Lebanon, left more than 100 people dead, and - either accidentally or by design - resulted in a direct hit upon the United Nations compound at Qana, which was packed with refugees.
Washington was reported to have tacitly endorsed the operation, and, in Arabs' eyes, the US was slow to secure a cease-fire.
"Everyone knows the US gave the green light for Grapes of Wrath, and certainly the Israeli Cabinet felt it had a free hand. The US empowered Israel to act with impunity, to do anything," says Mohamed el-Sayed Said of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
The emotional impact of Qana, and the US role in it, he says, were "unforgettable" and have caused some to ask that Arab regimes "finish relying on the US for the peace process."
Other Western officials, however, say that such a reaction is no more than a tempest in a teapot.
"The US has always had a strong regard for Israel's requirements in the peace process, and Arabs are all adept at Realpolitik," says a West European diplomat. "This is nothing very dramatic. The feelings may be real, but other interests are involved."
Still, few doubt that Christopher will find that US influence has diminished - if only slightly - in the aftermath of Netanyahu's May 29 victory. Analysts here say the lessened stature stems from the administration's miscalculated support in the election for the dovish Peres.
"Clinton played the Peres card, and now Clinton is a hostage to Netanyahu," says Mohamed Sid Ahmed, a leftist commentator. "Netanyahu owes Clinton nothing, and has shown that he, not Clinton, is in command in the Middle East."