Back to Mideast Future

Madeleine Albright is often praised for her refreshingly undiplomatic bluntness. On her first expedition to the Mideast as US secretary of state, she may need to use that bluntness as a ploy.

Through aides she let it be known before departing Washington that she would dress down Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for not, in essence, declaring war on Hamas extremists. That may play well in Washington. But it's not very useful for getting Mideast peace machinery back in gear. Not useful, that is, unless it's a well publicized blitz on Arafat that also allows her to press Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to temper his expansionist policies.

Would such a double reprimand work? Would it get the land-for-peace program back into motion? Or would failure further damage US prestige in a region where its once triumphant Gulf war coalition has all but fallen apart? To decide whether the risk is worth taking, first, look back. Then look forward.

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Before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Arab-Israeli peace seemed more feasible than at any time since the modern state of Israel was born in 1949. Leaders of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt had achieved a level of trust, even wary friendship. The two main participants were sticking to the outlines, and sometimes the timetable, of their Oslo peace agreement. Their peoples said guardedly hopeful things about each other. Israelis were returning land (albeit not a lot) to the Palestinians. And Palestinian security troops were cracking down (albeit not a lot) on Hamas belligerents. Long-hypothetical plans for regional trade, tourism, investment, and development were seriously discussed.

Now, look forward. In mid-November, a US-backed fourth Mideast economic summit is scheduled in Qatar on the Persian Gulf. It's supposed to provide Ms. Albright a platform to sell the benefits of regional cooperation. At the first of these summits, Arab and Israeli businessmen talked enthusiastically about entrepreneurship as a solution to both belligerence and poverty. Now, as Israeli-Palestinian relations slip back to bitterness, Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states, longtime US friends, say they may skip the summit. This could dent US influence in the larger Islamic world. And that looms large because this year's Islamic summit meeting in December will be hosted by Iran's new, more moderate President Khatami.

So how can the US help bring Israel and its Arab neighbors back to their earlier cooperating state?

First, continue US involvement in Arafat's search for terrorist cells.

Second, leverage internal pressures on Netanyahu to back off from expansionist, peace-disrupting policies. Nearly 60 percent of Israelis still tell pollsters they prefer a safeguarded peace to the present belligerent un-safety. Netanyahu's hawkish Cabinet minister Ariel Sharon, commander of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, now urges exit from south Lebanon.

Third, mount a quiet campaign to assure the Islamic world that the US is not anti-Muslim. Pursue President Clinton's stated intention to explore improved relations with Iran. Start by withdrawing a threat to penalize France for an oil investment there.

Are there risks? Yes. Are they worth taking to return to the peace momentum of two years ago? Yes.

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