Faltering Mideast Peace Threatens US Interests

At first glance, the two events appear unrelated.

As President Clinton met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu here April 7 in a failed bid to resuscitate Middle East peace talks, Americans in the Gulf state of Bahrain were being warned to avoid public places because of a heightened threat of terrorist attacks.

Such warnings stem, in part, from the level of tension between Israelis and Palestinians. At stake in the success of this peace initiative is preventing a possible escalation of terrorism against US citizens and interests.

Talks continued here this week with a Palestinian delegation to try to move the deeply paralyzed peace process.

For Americans, security from terrorism abroad is not all that is at stake. Also linked to the success of the peace talks: "containing" Iran and Iraq, ensuring the free flow of Gulf oil, and maintaining US prestige on the world diplomatic stage.

In the current chaos surrounding the peace talks, religious extremists could resurface, says William Quandt, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a former US Middle East negotiator. "Radicals anywhere will try to exploit this to their advantage."

One key concern is that a collapse in the peace process could frost relations between the US and moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These nations are keystones of Washington's strategy of "containing" Iraq and Iran and guarding the free flow of Gulf oil reserves. Disruption of the world's largest petroleum supplies could create havoc in the global economy.

Moreover, a failure to salvage the peace process could rebound beyond the Middle East. Some experts say a collapse could hurt relations with non-Arab Muslim states, including NATO ally Turkey. Because of America's strong support for Israel, US relations with the European Union, too, could suffer: The EU has backed the Palestinians in their protest of Mr. Netanyahu's decision to build new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem.

Indeed, a humiliation of the enormity of a collapse of the Middle East peace process could diminish US power and prestige around the globe.

"This is a very dangerous time," says Judith Yaphe, a Middle East expert at the Pentagon's National Defense University. "If the United States does not do something to get [the peace process] back on track, there is no knowing what is going to happen."

How US got starring role

Arab-Israeli peace efforts have withstood serious violence and political crises in the past. But the stakes are now greater than before for Washington, experts say, because the end of the cold war has left the US as the world's pre-eminent military and diplomatic power.

Because of that status, the Palestinians agreed to allow the US to act as sole mediator and main guarantor of the 1993 and 1995 accords on Palestinian self-rule. Previously, they relied on other Arab states and the Soviet Union to advance their interests in the international arena.

Clinton is fully aware that the collapse of the process carries grave consequences for the US, as reflected by his stepped-up participation in the rescue effort.

He has met in recent weeks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and King Hussein of Jordan. His April 7 meeting with Netanyahu was the second since Feb. 13.

Why both sides won't talk

Israel is refusing to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the most critical questions in dispute. Netanyahu wants Mr. Arafat to stop what he says is deliberate anti-Israeli violence aimed at forcing Israel to freeze the housing construction in East Jerusalem. For their part, the Palestinians, who covet East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, say there must be a freeze on new Israeli settlements in disputed territories before they'll talk.

"If the US wants to protect its credibility and interests ... it must use its leverage, friendship, and auspices to ask the Israelis to reconsider their [construction] policy," says Khalid Foutah, who represents the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington.

While the Clinton administration has criticized the Israeli housing decision, it has twice vetoed a United Nations resolution demanding a halt to the East Jerusalem project. On April 7 it reaffirmed its decades-old guarantee of Israel's security.

"This commitment is iron-clad and unequivocal," Vice President Al Gore told the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in the US.

But that commitment is beginning to hurt the US in the current crisis. Arab officials and others say the US vetoes of the UN resolution have raised doubts about the US ability to be an even-handed mediator, fueling anti-American sentiments in the Muslim world.

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