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The Multiplex Mideast

Even Syria sees you have to deal with America to be a relevant player

By Geoffrey Kemp / January 27, 1997

The enthusiasm that has greeted the Hebron agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, with Israeli forces withdrawing from most of the city, is well deserved and could have far-reaching consequences for the Middle East. The deal demonstrated that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to accept the principles of the Oslo peace process negotiated by his predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. His actions have also challenged the basic theology of Israel's right wing, which for years has called for Israeli sovereignty over the "land of Israel," including the West Bank.

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Yet it would be irresponsible to be too upbeat about the Middle East at this point in time. Israel and the Palestinian Authority must agree on far more difficult problems if a permanent peace is to happen. These include Israel's further withdrawal from areas of the West Bank and the so-called "final-status" issues - Jerusalem, the rights of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlement activity, permanent borders, and whether there should be a Palestinian state.

The United States has huge interests in a successful outcome of these negotiations since it would likely lead to further peace treaties between Israel and Arab countries, including Syria and Saudi Arabia. This in turn would strengthen America's strategic posture in the vital Persian Gulf.

Since the creation of Israel in 1948, the US has been a key external player in the region. With the decline of British and French influence following the 1956 Suez crisis and the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the US emerged as the dominant foreign presence.

Why some regimes use terror

Intense differences of opinion exist as to how the US should use its power and whether this period of dominance has peaked. Regimes in the most radical states - especially Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan - regard the US as the single greatest threat to their existence. So long as the US challenges them at every level - and, in the case of Iraq, calls for overthrow of the regime - their future is in jeopardy. They use anti-Americanism and terrorism to sustain their fragile domestic base.

Other regimes that formerly posed a radical challenge, particularly Syria, believe that dealing with the United States is the only way to remain a relevant player in the post-cold-war era.

Friendly countries, including Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf states, all have strong security links with the US and regard it as protector of last resort. They believe that, without high-profile US involvement, peace diplomacy will make little progress and that in the event of a new Middle East war, a US military role will be decisive. They disagree as to how much leverage the US should apply to achieve its diplomatic and military goals.

Arab countries argue the US does not use enough of its clout to change Israeli policy. Many Israelis believe Arabs are rearming with US weapons while wanting the US to carry the burden of pressuring Israel to make concessions.

Setbacks and Saudis

The linkage between progress toward an Arab-Israeli peace and the viability of the long-run US security commitment to the Gulf is important. A collapse of the peace process would weaken the credibility of US Gulf strategy. The setbacks during 1996, following the suicide bombings in Israel and the election of Mr. Netanyahu, have chilled Israel's relations with Egypt and Jordan, have postponed any chance of a breakthrough with Syria, and have put on hold further diplomatic contacts with Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco.