Hope and tension in Clinton Mideast visit

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President Clinton's visit to Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas on Saturday is an encouraging gesture of American commitment to the peace process. But many in the region fear that the high-level attention will be short-lived, that the peace process will be driven off center stage by other issues.

It is important that Americans understand how the region reacts to US intervention in the peace process.

Anticipation of the president's visit has contributed, in the short-term, to rising tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. Hoping to provoke American intervention and mediation, the Palestinians have expanded their protests over prisoners and the delayed implementation of the Wye accords.

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Despite these tensions, Mr. Clinton's visit provides hope to supporters of peace on both sides. It also raises expectations among the wider Arab public. In the Gulf, for example, this visit is a welcome gesture: Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who last month recommitted themselves to support the peace financially, do not want to subsidize a failed process. True American commitment encourages far deeper support from the Gulf. All states in the region realize that without a substantial US role, Arabs and Israelis will go back to the old patterns of confrontation.

Many in the region are confused by a US foreign policy transmitted to them via conflicting channels: news media programs, congressional pronouncements, the State Department, the White House. Some believe US policy is centralized and monolithic - and still decided by Henry Kissinger. Few realize how it is influenced by domestic political factors.

Clinton's address to the joint legislative and executive bodies of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority will focus Arab attention on this trip more than on any event since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. He should seize this rare opportunity to articulate US policy - live via regional satellite transmission - to a very wide Arab audience.

What will Clinton face when he arrives? He will be reminded of how both the Israelis and the Palestinians continue to see any gain for the other as a loss to themselves: The zero sum game continues. The president will face a Benjamin Netanyahu who needs to gain more time, and wants to change the rules of the game and the Wye accords. He will face a Yasser Arafat who wants to announce a Palestinian state in May 1999.

Mr. Arafat wants an immediate release of political prisoners; Mr. Netanyahu will be noncommittal. Netanyahu wants an iron-fist policy against Hamas and Jihad; Arafat wants Israeli restraint of settlers, and a freeze on all violations of Wye.

Clinton will meet great opposition to peace among factions in both camps. After all, it is always easier to prepare for war than to build for peace or teach restraint. In much of what Israelis and Palestinians want, we find not only fear of each other, but fear of peace. For many on both sides, it is easier to fight and lose - or fight and take - than to compromise and be content.

This presidential visit marks a deepening of the US role in the peace process. It also marks increasing dependence by all parties on the American role.

US intervention has brought the process this far, and American hesitation now could bring it to a halt. A failure that bore a US stamp could harm US prestige and interests in the Arab world for years to come. But American involvement has already reached the point of no return.

Only forward progress will bring about an enhanced US position in the affairs of a Middle East poised at the crossroads of war and peace.

* Shafeeq Ghabra is the new director of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington. He is also a professor of political science at Kuwait University and editor in chief of Kuwait's 'Journal of Social Sciences.'

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