The Gulf and the Peace Process: Rightly Linked

In the flood of comments on the crisis with Iraq, several United States voices have strongly attacked the Clinton administration for linking the reestablishment of the coalition against Saddam Hussein with Israeli concessions in the peace process with Palestinians.

One columnist called the pressures "immoral." Another wrote that the administration believed "if only the Israelis would hand over East Jerusalem, the Arab world would join an anti-Saddam coalition overnight." The US position was described in one column: "If only Israel would immolate itself in accord with Arab demands, we'd be able to make Saddam lose his taste for botulism and anthrax." In another tack, a writer suggested that if the Arab states of the Gulf were not prepared to assist in action against Saddam, the US should pull out its ships and planes and leave those states to face the Iraqi threat alone.

These comments are not only marked by hyperbole but, in the last instance, by a lack of understanding of what is at stake in the Gulf. The hyperbole lies in describing what the US wants from the Likud government in Israel and how a revived peace process will impact on the Iraqi leader. Little evidence exists that Washington is pressing Israel either to make concessions on East Jerusalem or to increase risks to the security of the Jewish state. What Bill Clinton and his team are seeking is reestablishment of the confidence between Israelis and Palestinians that grew from the Oslo accords in the time of the late Yitzhak Rabin and that can lead to genuine negotiation of difficult issues.

The suggestion that the US withdraw from the Gulf ignores the vital link between the US presence there and Israel's own security. The twin objectives of US policy in the Middle East always have been access to the resources of the Gulf and the security of the state of Israel. Whether the Israeli government and friends of Israel recognize it or not, the two are closely tied. Saddam may represent a threat to neighboring Arab states, but his ambitions represent an even greater threat to Israel. Whatever the attitudes of the Gulf states, US military might curbs that threat. But the exercise of that power becomes more effective if the US can secure the cooperation of the states in the region. This is where the peace process enters in.

No one familiar with the situation in Iraq and the Gulf is claiming that a revitalized peace process would work miracles, either on Saddam or on US allies in the region. But forward progress on peace would diminish the psychological and political obstacles that now stand in the way of full cooperation with Washington.

Critics of US policy in the region - and, especially, of the linkage between support in the Gulf and the peace process - point not only to the threats from Iraq and Iran but also to the weaknesses of the Gulf Arab states and their heavy dependence on Western aid, markets, and investment. They insist that Israeli interests should not be sacrificed to satisfy anachronistic monarchies that, if effectively pressed, should bend easily to a superpower's will. But it is the very weaknesses of these regimes that make them vulnerable in the event of a failed peace process or inaction by the US. Their replacement by regimes such as those in Sudan or Libya would not be in Israeli or American interests.

In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf sheikhdoms, many may not feel deeply about the Palestine issue, but when roused by militants who stress Arab humiliation, Israeli threats, and American support for the Jewish state, they pay attention. Disinclined to attack the regimes directly, opposition elements exploit these external themes. Absent compelling evidence that the US is working toward a just solution for the Palestinians, those who might support cooperation with the West are silent.

Conscious of their dependence on US aid, neither Egypt nor Jordan wishes to break ties with Israel or the US. Instead, they seek to minimize cooperation with both. The boycott of the recent US-sponsored economic conference in Doha, Qatar, is an example.

The linkage between progress in the peace process and the security of the Arab states of the Gulf is real. Ignoring that reality would be detrimental to US interests and to Israel's security.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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