Middle East Tunnel Vision

Unless the United States offers a substantive and clear initiative this time, the peace process will be over. In its current precarious state, it cannot be saved by handshakes and symbolic gestures.

President Clinton should impress upon participants in this week's summit that peace in the Middle East will not come about by digging in the past, but by looking to the future. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tunnel is designed to dig up the past - and it should be closed. Although a digression and a non-issue, the tunnel abets those who want to derail the peace process.

More alarming, it plays on Muslim anxieties over the fate of the Al-Aqsa mosque, the original Muslim holy place and currently the third holiest place for Muslims. A second tunnel, branching off from the main one, reportedly goes directly under the mosque. So the idea of a fanatic planting explosives to destroy the mosque doesn't seem far-fetched - particularly to those who recall that a Jewish gunman was able to enter the Hebron mosque in 1994 and shoot worshippers at random, while Israeli guards did nothing to stop him.

The saddest thing about this issue is that there was nothing urgent about opening the tunnel. As former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said, "If it stayed closed the last 2,000 years it could wait a few years more." And yet merely reclosing the tunnel is not enough - nor will it be enough for Arab leaders to shake hands in Washington. The tunnel and the handshakes are both mere symbols. The problem is that the tunnel is a symbol of a very real Israeli refusal to consider the needs of Palestinians, whereas the handshakes symbolize goodwill and good faith that no longer exist.

Both the US and Israel need to break out of their present tunnel vision. The fundamental issue is a return to the Madrid formula based on UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land-for-peace. Far from wanting to move forward, however, the current Israeli government apparently wishes to negate agreements already made under the so-called Oslo peace process.

"I have my disagreements with Oslo," Netanyahu told ABC's David Brinkley. This is an ominous sign for the future of peace in the Middle East. Israel is already behind schedule in redeploying troops from Hebron and other Palestinian population centers.

Netanyahu's talk of wanting more security provisions, added to what the previous Israeli government agreed to, is a breach of diplomacy and ethics. If he continues on this path, it will breach international law as well. A responsible statesman cannot renege on treaties made by his predecessor.

Unfortunately, the US does not seem prepared to pressure Netanyahu to take the steps necessary to salvage the peace process. The Clinton administration, fearful of losing Jewish votes in an election year, seems unwilling to act substantively. So far the American role has been to come in whenever the future of the peace process is uncertain and recite a few platitudes. The US has tremendous leverage on Israel in the form of billions of dollars of aid. The Likud government could not afford to take its current stance if it did not think that the US would continue to supply Israel with aid no matter what its policies.

It is better for Israel to be at peace and do business with its Arab neighbors and improve its economic performance, instead of depending on the US to subsidize every Israeli with the equivalent of a $1,000 check every year. If Clinton allows his own reelection plans to prevent his acting forcefully, he could miss his last chance to save the peace process. After the elections, it may be too late. There may be no peace process to save.

Mamoun Fandy is professor of politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

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