An Anxious Arab World Awaits Word From US

This week's visits to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat are unlike previous ones. They come at a time when the peace process is on the verge of collapse. And the peace process isn't all that's dangerously in flux in the Middle East.

The people of the region are trying to cope with the menace of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the suffering of the Iraqi people, and the threat of a US attack on Iraq. At the same time, they're confused by US policy changes toward Iran and by the ongoing massacres in Algeria.

In this atmosphere, the collapse of the peace process could throw the region into chaos. It is, therefore, imperative for the US to throw its full weight behind this process. Vital American interests are at stake, including Gulf security, regional stability, economic interests, antiterrorism, and the possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, the word from Washington is that little has come out of the meeting between President Clinton and Mr. Netanyahu. Washington's hope, apparently, is that the Palestinians and Israelis will keep talking, and that the former will wait patiently until a new Israeli government comes to power. But Netanyahu could be reelected. He is a young, master politician who appeals to the worst instincts of his constituency both in Israel and the US.

I've observed first-hand the rising anti-Americanism in the Arab world. Even in the Gulf, where America is held in high esteem for liberating Kuwait and boxing in Saddam, the people are frustrated by US inaction when it comes to Israel and Palestinian rights. This anger is reflected in news coverage and informal gatherings.

Netanyahu's policies of more settlements and more confiscation of land is fanning Arab frustration. Arabs worry that if US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright can't win concessions from the Israelis, no one can.

Meanwhile, Arafat's visit to Washington is complicated by his poor health, which has raised speculation about a successor. His signature on peace documents is the only one sure to be respected by all Palestinian factions. As a result of Netanyahu's unyielding policies, however, Arafat has lost credibility among Palestinians.

Many Arab leaders are concerned about the discrediting of Arafat, not only for the Palestinians' sake, but for their own. They have tied their political futures to the success of the peace process. Its collapse could spur reactionary forces. In this regard, the massacres in Algeria appear particularly ominous.

Adding to regional uncertainty is the change taking place in Iran. As the US considers mending fences with Iran, Arabs feel uneasy about the implications of such a rapprochement. If Iran is allowed to become dominant in the Gulf, where will this leave the Arab Gulf states?

Yet another Arab concern: the emerging military alliance between Turkey and Israel. Egypt is extremely nervous about this new alliance. If the peace process were moving ahead, Egypt's focus would be on trade and privatizing its economy. The Egyptians have been building for peace, but a collapse of negotiations could shift their focus to war, either with fundamentalist terrorism inside or with a new alliance outside.

The many variables at play in this volatile region make it imperative that the US step in and offer a compromise. Waiting for the parties to reach a solution isn't likely to provide a just outcome, given the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians.

By at least pushing Netanyahu to accept something closer to the Palestinian position on the redeployment of troops in the West Bank, the US would gain strategically and economically. Ties to the Arab world - which is, additionally, a big market for US goods - should not be sacrificed in order to avoid offending Netanyahu. Currently, important countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are reluctant to embrace US initiatives in the region because of the lack of progress on the peace process.

The status quo can't continue. This new year should be the year to resuscitate a peace process that is almost dead. If the US is really concerned about the security of Israel and the stability of the region, now is the time to act. The alternative to the peace process, sadly, is a war process.

* Mamoun Fandy is professor of politics at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

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